Police Academy cuts are unjustified

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It is difficult, and generally a bad idea, to argue that although painful cutbacks must be made during a major budget deficit, one particular line item should be spared if at all possible. But that is exactly The Examiner’s recommendation about the current proposal to eliminate one of the San Francisco Police Academy’s five scheduled 2008 classes.

The process by which local officials tend to decide which expenditures could be slashed often involves dividing the potential cuts into several different levels of public importance. And it seems to us that graduating a maximum number of new police officers as rapidly as possible should be rated among the priorities least likely to face the ax.

As mayoral spokesman Nathan Ballard aptly put it, “We have a $338.4 million deficit, which requires that everything be considered for savings.” While this newspaper fully concurs that nothing in the budget should be exempt from potential excision, timely Police Academy classes are necessary for meeting The City’s mandated 1,971-officer staffing minimum. To keep the SFPD understaffed seems foolhardy at a time when homicides have surged to 10-year highs and as many as 600 veteran officers are likely to retire in the next five years.

Dropping one academy class would save $363,000, which obviously could somewhat help The City with the current budget crunch. But the fiscal counterargument, in favor of putting more officers onto the streets sooner instead of later, is that a fully staffed Police Department should reduce the need for 50 percent costlier overtime duty.

With a decade-high 98 homicides in 2007 and an even faster first-quarter pace of 33 killings this year, public safety demands that The City police function with sufficient street-ready officers to lower the carnage. Making a difference also requires a tactical refocus of concentrated patrol presence in the known highest-violence districts. Thankfully such a shift has begun to happen and public response to the newly increased police visibility has been strongly positive.

Before the bottom dropped out of the budget, Mayor Gavin Newsom was making good progress at increasing the police ranks. In 2005, while San Francisco spiked in homicides and violent crime, there was only one academy class of 51 recruits. But in 2006 there were 140 recruits in three classes, and last year six classes graduated 263 recruits. Hopefully some way can be found to maintain this positive trend.

When economic times get tough, it behooves local government to concentrate on maintaining basic services rather than the feel-good frills. And the need for safety of San Francisco residents in their homes and public spaces seems about as basic as it gets.

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