San Francisco Voters Pass Measure to Expand Police Powers

March 6, 2024
Under Prop. E, which was passed by voters, San Francisco police will have more flexibility in how they do their jobs while trying to ensure they spend less time on paperwork.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed placed Prop. E on the ballot to give police more tools and put new limits on the Police Commission. A recent Chronicle poll showed she is at risk of losing in November, and public safety concerns are already playing a dominant role in the race. It was one of two contested police measures on the March ballot, the other being Proposition B, a measure backed by one of Breed's reelection opponents, Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, that would seek to increase police staffing but only if voters later approve a new tax or amend an existing one. (Editor's note: Prop B did not pass.)

On Tuesday night, Breed told jubilant supporters that the results were "incredible," and later tweeted that the measure would help make San Francisco a safer city.

"I saw you out there working your butts off," she said, "and it looks like, so far, it's paying off. It took a lot of work, to get all this stuff we needed to get done, and change is a coming!"

Prop. E continues the mayor's efforts to lean into a law enforcement-led crackdown in response to the city's problems with property crime and open-air drug dealing.

Overall, the measure will give police more flexibility in how they do their jobs while trying to ensure they spend less time on paperwork. It will also slow down the process by which the commission can set new policies governing the Police Department.

After the votes came in, Breed said in a tweet that the measure builds on reductions in crime in San Francisco in 2023 and 2024.

"We are giving our SFPD officers more tools to do their jobs," she wrote, "and getting them out on the street to take care of our community."

While Breed and her allies contend Prop. E is an important tool to improve public safety in the city, critics including the American Civil Liberties Union have decried it as a threat to necessary police oversight that could also turn the city into a surveillance state.

Specifically, Prop. E expands the circumstances in which police officers can chase suspects by car. Currently, under a 10-year-old policy imposed by the Police Commission, officers can use their cars to pursue someone only if they believe the fleeing suspect has committed a violent felony or if they think the suspect immediately threatens public safety.

Under Prop. E, that threshold is lowered so that officers can give chase if the person has committed or is likely to commit a felony or violent misdemeanor. Breed has said the change could allow officers to more easily chase suspects caught robbing or breaking into retail stores, for example.

But the expanded chase component of the measure is also controversial as opponents have pointed out that police car chases can often turn violent or even deadly. A recent Chronicle investigation found that deaths linked to police car chases have skyrocketed across the country despite government pledges to curtail them. Most fatal pursuits start with low-level offenses and most of the people killed aren't the fleeing drivers, the investigation found.

Opponents of the measure such as the ACLU of Northern California's Tanisha Humphrey said Prop E's passage weakens independent oversight of the police and will make San Francisco more dangerous for Black and brown residents.

"The ACLU of Northern California and our partners will continue to defend civil liberties and civil rights in San Francisco, as we have for nearly 100 years," said Humphrey, who served as campaign manager on the No on Prop E campaign. "We will also press the mayor and Board of Supervisors to increase funding for evidence-based solutions that improve community safety, including affordable housing, mental health care, and substance use treatment."

Prop. E makes a variety of other changes to San Francisco policing beyond car chases.

The measure will also allow SFPD to use drones for car chases and other investigations, and it will let police install publicly owned surveillance cameras without needing to go through a lengthy city approval process.

In an effort to reduce police paperwork requirements, Prop. E allows an officer's body-worn camera to take the place of a written report for low-level use-of-force instances, unless the officer injured someone or pointed a gun at them. The commission and SFPD will also have to review their policies to try to make officers spend no more than 20% of their time on administrative tasks.

Before the commission could make changes to SFPD policy, Prop. E imposes a new three-month waiting period for the department to solicit community feedback through public meetings at each police station. It's an attempt by Breed to restrain the commission, which she lost control of even though she appointed a majority of its members.

Prop. E drew substantial donor interest, particularly after one of Breed's reelection challengers, Daniel Lurie, formed his own fundraising committee to support the measure. For Lurie, the spending helped him increase his name recognition among local voters, while stealing some of Breed's spotlight. He argued that he supported the ideas in the measure but Breed should have implemented them sooner.

In total, backers of Prop. E raised about $1.6 million to get the measure passed. Lurie's committee raised nearly $700,000, while Breed's raised more than $880,000. A separate committee aligned with Breed raised about $409,000 to support Prop. E and Prop. F, one of the other measures Breed placed on the ballot. The ACLU kicked in $212,000 to oppose Prop. E.

St. John Barned-Smith contributed to this report.


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