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Debate over funding for police staffing boost, Tasers headed for a Monday showdown

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San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott argued against cutting funding for more officers at a Board of Supervisors budget hearing on Thursday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco’s Police Chief Bill Scott made a plea Thursday for the Board of Supervisors not to cut funding for more officers as the budget analyst recommended slashing about 100 positions over two years to save millions of dollars.

The recommendation from budget analyst Harvey Rose comes in direct opposition to outgoing Mayor Mark Farrell’s two-year city budget proposal, $11 billion in each fiscal year, which lays out a plan to hire 250 additional officers over four years.

But the proposal is only adding more fuel to the ongoing debate at City Hall about exactly how many police officers San Francisco should have.

In 1994, San Francisco voters approved a measure requiring The City to have at least 1,971 sworn officers. This mandate was met just once, briefly, in 2009. Now, however, The City is on track to not only meet it in December but then start to surpass it.

“This is a huge budget allocation and request and a huge cost to the city,” Supervisor Malia Cohen said during the committee’s hearing Wednesday on the Police Department’s proposal. Cohen said she had “apprehension” since she wasn’t convinced that the officer boost is the “magic number.” “I don’t know if that is where we need to be,” Cohen said.

To hire more officers the department funds police academy classes, where recruits are trained for seven months. Classes are for about 50 recruits and cost $7 million apiece. About 35 to 40 recruits from each class will successfully become officers.

There are 80 already-funded new hires coming on board to get the department up to the mandated staffing level and 25 officers who will move back into active law enforcement roles by transitioning their current posts to civilians. Funding is proposed for 50 additional officers next fiscal year and another 50 in the subsequent fiscal year. In the third fiscal year, the plan is to fund 45 more officers, for a grand total of 250.

But Cohen said, “Perhaps now that we are at this 1,971 level, we don’t need to be having an over-abundance of officers. It’s very expensive.”

“The Department is on schedule to meet its 1,971 staffing mandate with current staffing, including academy graduates, and without the requested 100 new positions, which have not been justified at this time,” said the budget analyst report. “The Department will still realize an increase of 105 available police officers by civilianizing 25 positions filled by sworn staff (as proposed in the Mayor’s FY 2018-19 budget) and two previously planned academy classes.”

The report suggests cutting what would amount to 100 new officers, a move that would save $17.8 million. In making the suggestion, Rose also pointed to a recent budget analyst audit that found based on responses to emergency calls and other data the department could more effectively use its current staff, including hiring up to 200 civilians to fill administrative jobs currently performed by officers who could then perform work in the field.

Scott noted that of those 200 positions, 31 can’t be replaced because the officers are on desk duty, such as for disability or discipline, and the budget does assume 25 of them will be civilianized.

“We love to be data driven. But to be data driven is really a reactive form of policing,” Scott said. “We don’t want to wait until we have a crisis and then look at the data and say now we need all these cops. We want to be proactive on these things,” Scott told the committee.

Scott said he wants the staffing boost to fund such efforts as more foot patrols, operate through the night the recently launched “Healthy Streets” initiative, and re-launch a plain clothes investigative unit to work with the District Attorney on targeting serial burglars.

He said a lot of the work is about building relationships on the street. “You’re not going find that on any data sheet. We know the need is there.” He said that “once we get the call for service … we’ve failed. Now we are reacting.”

Scott acknowledged he was “asking for a lot” of public funding. But he said he wanted to address issues before they got out of hand. “Right now we are reacting to car burglaries. The number had to get to 31,000 a year for people to say we have a crisis on our hands. We want to get in front of these things.”

A group of nonprofits have called on the committee to re-allocate from Farrell’s budget as much as $100 million for such things as homeless or food services, and during a Monday rally some participants called on the committee to reduce funding for police officers.

Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, who will leave office next month after losing to Rafael Mandelman in the June 5 District 8 contest, supported the department’s budget proposal. “I hope my colleagues will join me in not looking at this as a place where we can get extra money but actually trying to make sure we have resources available to do the job that our residents keep telling me they want done and they want done better,” Sheehy said.

Ultimately any decisions about the staffing was postponed until Monday. The committee did not discuss funding in the budget for Tasers, but that discussion is also expected to take place Monday. Cohen said she was open to having the debate, but did not say if she wanted to cut funding for Tasers.

The budget includes $3.5 million for Tasers, or electronic control weapons, over the next two years.

The committee made about $3 million in cuts the department agreed with. The Police Department budget was proposed to grow to $635 million next fiscal year, a $47 million, or 8 percent increase, from the current fiscal year. It will now grow by 7.5 percent, after the cuts.

The committee is scheduled to make final budget decisions next Wednesday. The full board is expected to take the first vote on the budget on July 24.

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