San Francisco Voters to Weigh In on Police Department Staffing

Nov. 29, 2023
A measure on March's ballot would set a minimum level for San Francisco police staffing and potentially raise money to pay for recruitment and retention.

San Francisco voters will weigh in on police staffing in March after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors decided in a close vote Tuesday to place a controversial measure on the March ballot.

The measure would set a minimum police staffing level and potentially raise money to pay for recruitment and retention through new taxes or existing, modified taxes.

In a 6-5 vote, the board agreed to put the measure to voters after weeks of heated arguments. Supervisors Dean Preston, Matt Dorsey, Rafael Mandelman, Joel Engardio and Hilary Ronen voted against the measure. Some supervisors who opposed the measure said the San Francisco Police Department is already fully staffed and doesn't need a staffing mandate, while others said they did not want to support a measure that was co-opted by Supervisor Ahsha Safaí.

Dorsey introduced the legislation in October as San Francisco continues to struggle to fill vacancies in its Police Department despite attempts by the mayor and supervisors to retain and recruit more officers. Those efforts have had some success, but the city still hopes to hire about 400 officers. It's now short of the 2,182 recommended in the most recent city-commission staffing analysis, according to the Police Department.

But Dorsey and other moderate lawmakers, including Mayor London Breed, pulled their support for his bill after Safaí introduced a "poison pill" amendment that they say will tie funding to increase police staffing to new taxes. Safaí denies that the language says that, instead arguing the bill allows for reallocating money from existing taxes as well as raising new taxes.

Safaí and Dorsey clashed in two separate committee meetings, with Safaí calling out Dorsey for his "fiscal irresponsibility" and Dorsey saying Safai was sabotaging and "holding hostage" his plan to fill police vacancies.

"We can meet our minimum police staffing and be fiscally responsible," Safaí said after Tuesday's meeting.

Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Catherine Stefani, as well as several community organizations, are backing Safaí's plan as the best bang for the city's buck. In a statement, Stefani said the city needs a "fiscally responsible plan to get more cops" on its streets.

"I will support any measure that increases police staffing and allows San Francisco to hire more police officers without forcing layoffs of firefighters, nurses, 911 dispatchers and other public safety workers to pay for it," Stefani said in a statement. Stefani often sides with Breed and Dorsey on public safety issues.

Peskin said Safai's version of the legislation will "help us recruit the officers we need while preserving fire, emergency public health and 911 services."

San Francisco has a disproportionately large police force compared with other cities its size. San Francisco has 26.4 officers per 10,000 residents, compared with cities of a similar size like Indianapolis (18.6), Charlotte (19.4) and Seattle (19.8), according to FBI Uniform Crime reporting data showing the number of police officers and total law enforcement per capita.

San Francisco's per-capita numbers should be considered with the understanding that its daytime commuter and tourist population are quite large.

The mayor's office, Dorsey and other moderate groups have said for weeks Safaí's poison pill necessarily ties police retention and recruitment funds to new taxes. Dorsey on multiple occasions referred to Safaí's amendment as a "cop tax."

The language, however, is clear: the proposed Charter amendment says the funding requirement will be tied to either a new special tax, a new general tax or a measure that would amend an existing general or special tax to dedicate revenue for police staffing.

Ronen said she opposed the measure because it could mean being forced to set aside future revenue sources or money from existing taxes to pay for police recruitment and retention. She doesn't want money from any future tax on corporations and billionaires to "go straight to the cops."

"We are tying our hands in the future," Ronen said, slamming the measure as "nonsensical."

Since 2017 the board and mayor have increased funding to the Police Department by over $200 million, Ronen said.

Preston, who also voted no, said there's "no evidence that reinstituting this minimum staffing number will actually fix this issue in any way." He said that "playing with theoretical minimums" doesn't "magically create new police officers." He said the department gets hundreds of millions of dollars a year but "still lacks the officers they say they need and can't fill academies."

The three most recent police academies did not have more than 50 students, despite a goal by the department to have 100 people in each academy class. Preston said the city should focus on violent crime in residential neighborhoods, but that they instead are often flooding other downtown neighborhoods like Union Square and the Financial District.

For Walton, who voted in favor of the measure, the issue is "the fact that we have not provided young people ... with the excitement about becoming a police officer."

Melgar's reason for voting yes was more simple: her district's police precincts have been chronically understaffed over the past few years. She said the board is "missing an opportunity" to support the department in recruiting and retaining officers.

Dorsey, whose measure was co-opted in committee, made clear that the staffing shortage facing San Francisco is seen across the rest of the country, and that it won't go away unless the city acts.

"What I wanted to do with the Charter amendment I was proposing, before it was hijacked, was to have a process on how we can have a minimum staffing level over time," Dorsey said. "This notion that San Franciscans can only have a fully staffed police department if they're willing to pay extra for it ... is not something a responsible city government should be doing."

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(c)2023 the San Francisco Chronicle

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