Police Chief Bill Scott on the state of S.F.: ‘I just try to do what I believe is right’

From policing the Tenderloin to working with DA Chesa Boudin

San Francisco’s police chief came to town back in 2017, with a badge in his hand and reform in his heart.

Five years later, Bill Scott has accomplished a lot on the reform side of the equation. But he finds himself involved in a political drama involving a mayor who wants to crack down on the bad guys and a district attorney who is perceived as soft on crime. Where does that leave our chief? Smack dab in the middle. Which is fine by him.

He’s been through worse.

Scott made his name down in Los Angeles, where he rose through the ranks to become a deputy chief. The Rodney King riots erupted when he was a second-year patrol officer.

“I was working on the day that the verdict was read,” Scott told The Examiner. “I was actually assigned to the San Fernando Valley, but a large portion of the department got reassigned to South L.A. that night … because that was ground zero for everything.

“I probably worked for 30 straight hours. It was unlike anything I had ever seen, once we got out in the field. Fires, gunshots, just total chaos. And it left a lasting impression. … How one decision can make or break not only your career, but the profession. That was not lost on me early on. It really changed policing.”

Scott has tried to apply those principles, surrounding use of force and police reform, throughout his management career. That’s why Ed Lee picked him to come here in the first place.

But power is a rocky road.

The San Francisco Police Department faces daunting issues, seemingly from all sides, including public safety concerns, rampant drug dealing, break-ins and shoplifting, a serious staffing shortage and use of force accusations. Did I mention the internal investigations dust-up with Chesa Boudin and the Mayor’s Tenderloin Emergency Declaration? It’s a lot.

The Examiner sat down with Chief Scott this week to discuss all those things, and more. He’s an easy guy to talk to. Likes to hike The City in his spare time. Enjoys basketball documentaries. Still a fan of his home state team, Alabama’s Crimson Tide.

And he’s got a lot on his plate, professionally. Here’s the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

This is an incredibly volatile time to be the police chief in San Francisco. What motivates you?

Times like this are what this job is about. For folks like me, and I’m not unique in this sense, where you put in three decades-plus, there’s been ups and downs and there’s been volatility and some real challenges. Those things prepare you for times like this. I still find purpose in this job, in being the chief and what I do. I’m still motivated to hopefully make a difference and make things better as much as I can do within what I can influence.

You were brought here for your experience with transformational chang and police reform. Can you draw parallels between what you went through in L.A. and what you’re facing here in San Francisco?

In L.A., we were the epicenter of the demand for change in policing. We had the whole world, at least it felt like it at the time, mad at policing and mad at LAPD. Let’s go out and do our jobs and let’s remember why we came on this job. That’s how we approached it, and it got us through in a good frame of mind. I think that came back to me in 2020. After George Floyd’s murder, I told officers: “There’s a lot going on right now. A lot of people who understandably are upset with this profession. Remember why you came on this job, and go out and stay focused on that.”

What are you most proud of during your tenure in San Francisco?

I think one of the things that I was brought in for was to implement the Collaborative Reform Initiative that we had with the U.S. Department of Justice. We’re not done yet, but I’m really very pleased with what we’ve done in five years. Everything is designed to make us a better police department, to make us better in how we deal with various communities, how we address crime. Are we addressing crime in a constitutionally, procedurally just way? How are we dealing with people in crisis? In San Francisco, that’s a big deal, because we do have a lot of that.

Where can SFPD improve?

The Tenderloin is an ongoing challenge. The City has always been high in property crime. I’m going to do everything I can to help turn that around, because I think we can do better. We do OK on violent crime, but any is too many.

Let’s talk about your relationship with the district attorney. It feels like it’s been an extremely public back-and-forth. Was there a way to avoid that?

One of the things that the district attorney and I have tried to do from the start is be candid with one another in terms of working through issues. I pick up the phone if I got an issue. I call them him and we’ll discuss it and vice versa. That is a positive. And we don’t always agree. There are some things that we disagree on, like the MOU issue. It caused a lot of discourse, both publicly and among some people who may not have agreed with what I did, or why I did it, but I felt it was necessary and I still feel it was necessary.

Do you believe Chesa Boudin has politicized your relationship in an effort to fend off the recall?

He’s in a political situation. He’s going to do what he feels necessary to get through this. I don’t think the attack and blame of the police department is what people are expecting. The issue is whether people want him as a district attorney or don’t. I haven’t gotten involved in a recall conversation, and I won’t. I just don’t want the police department to become a fall guy, if you will, for a political process.

How would you characterize your relationship with Boudin right now?

We still have to work together. We still have to sit down and have these discussions and we do. We don’t always agree, but we are cordially professional. The times where we don’t agree, I’m going to bring my position. He’ll bring his, and hopefully we can work through it. … It ain’t about me. It ain’t about him, or it shouldn’t be anyway. It’s about getting the work done that’s in the best interest of the public safety of The City, and that’s what I hope we all would agree to.

There seems to be an increased desire for law and order in The City. How do you balance police reform with a growing population that wants tougher policing?

I believe we can do both. I would argue with anybody who says it’s either/or, because it’s not. You can have reform and still have good policing and you have to address crime. A lot of policing is about making adjustments because crime ebbs and flows. The better departments are able to do that. They’re not so rigid that they can’t make adjustments when they need to.

In terms of public safety, people are worried about car break-ins and house break-ins, burglaries and shoplifting. Can’t we put more undercover police on the streets to combat this wave?

Yeah, we had to do that and more. My son’s car has gotten broken into twice.

What has worked for us recently is identifying the people who are the most prolific. We have a list of them and we track them. They’ve been arrested a number of times for burglaries or theft-related incidents.

They keep coming back and when we get an opportunity to arrest them again, it’s working with the district attorney’s office to attempt to get them detained until they have their day in court. Sometimes we’re successful. Sometimes we’re not. But the times when we’re successful on those most prolific, it does have an impact and we track it.

In 2021, mid-year, we were up pretty significantly in burglaries. We did put plain clothes units out in the middle of the night, where we were having spikes and we arrested some prolific people. We saw, at least statistically, a turn around. And so from about mid-year last year, continuing into this year, burglaries have dropped significantly. Now again, there are people who aren’t reporting. There are people who are still getting victimized. I don’t want to make it sound by any stretch of the imagination that we got this thing solved, but those strategies, we believe, paid off.

What loopholes are these people falling through if they’re not detained?

Ultimately, it’s up to the courts whether or not a person is going to be detained and they have their own methodology of determining that. I think where the frustration lies is when a person has active cases going, that they’re waiting to be heard by the courts, and they get out and they break into somebody’s house again.

We just hit the 90-day mark of Mayor London Breed’s Tenderloin Emergency Declaration. You were asked to flood the zone. Can you tell our readers what was the increase that SFPD made in the area over that time?

We’ve increased the deployment and we just increased it again (Monday, March 14). Initially, there were additional officers sent to the Tenderloin. I think something like 10. There’s about 110 officers that are assigned to the Tenderloin. Because of our staffing issues, we’ve had to use overtime to supplement and augment the staffing. Today, we’re using overtime to step up deployment by about 24 personnel in total. That includes some of the supervision, seven days a week. It’s an expensive proposition.

But we’re going to try to sustain it as much as possible, as long as possible, and then we’re going to have to readjust at some point. There are areas in the Tenderloin that just need constant presence with police officers, uniform and plain clothes. We have narcotics working there constantly in plain clothes and we have officers in uniform.

People have criticized the SFPD for a lack of foot patrols. For officers staying in their cars while crimes were being committed. Are there more police walking the beat in the Tenderloin?

There are. Sometimes it gets lost because there’s a lot of challenges in the Tenderloin. There’s a lot of people hanging out. Some people living out in the streets, and we do have a tremendous, pervasive issue with open air drug sales. It’s no secret and it’s been that way for a long time. We’ve got to continue to work to change it. We make a lot of arrests. If we need to make more, we’ll make more, but …

Let’s talk about that. I could walk through the Tenderloin and point out the drug dealers. What’s the obstacle to rolling up and arresting them?

It’s not as easy as that. Look, I came up in patrol at the height of a similar drug epidemic, crack cocaine. In my early patrol years, I made a lot of narcotics-related arrests and sometimes, yeah, you roll up on something or walk up on something and you see a transaction in process. That’s not so hard. Most of the time when they see us coming, they’re going to do what they’re doing.

They got complicated systems, and people holding the dope. Or the dope is somewhere hidden in the bushes. And so, what people see when there aren’t police around is not the same thing that we’re going to see when we roll up in uniform. That’s why our plain-clothed officers make a lot of arrests. It’s somewhere around 500 arrests just last year. Took tens of thousands of dollars off the street. More fentanyl than we’ve ever confiscated in this department’s history last year and it’s still not enough. It’s happening and it has to continue to happen, but what I would say to your readers is the effort is ongoing. The federal partnerships are ongoing. 

Tell me how the feds are helping.

We’re still working with our federal partners. … We’ve gotten some people up the food chain with some pretty significant seizures to go along with that, but the effort needs to be sustained; it’s got to keep going.

Do you believe Chesa Boudin is enforcing the law and putting people in prison appropriately for this kind of crime?

I don’t think incarceration in and of itself is going to be the one and the only answer to this issue. But I do think accountability when people are arrested and incarceration serves as somewhat of a disincentive for drug dealers. It’s a different story with users, to some degree. Look, the average time in jail is somewhere around five days for the almost 500 arrests that we made last year.

I’m not saying that it’s the DA’s fault or the court’s fault, but the bottom line is that’s the average time. … To reduce incarceration, that’s a real thing. I’m not saying that’s misplaced. Let’s just focus on the drug sales right now, or prolific offenders. There’s got to be some level of accountability when the evidence is there. We have to be effective, when we do enforce, who we’re enforcing on, these impact players, these prolific offenders.

The nonprofit “Urban Alchemy” is working alongside police in the Tenderloin, helping to clean streets and offer services. One of their members was shot recently. How do you feel about this organization? Are their properly trained?

Yeah, they’re not police officers and I think it’s unfair to put them in a position and put expectations on them to do police officer duties. They shouldn’t be doing that. Groups like that can be very effective, but we have to be smart about what we’re asking them to do, not to put them in harm’s way. Some of these drug dealers are very dangerous people and volatile, and we don’t want anybody to get hurt. That’s why we have cops out there and police officers out there and that’s our job.

Let’s pivot to the staffing shortage your department faces. I believe you need to hire about 500 officers, maybe more. What’s the plan there?

We’re dealing with a national issue and we’re not alone in this, with recruitment challenges, with higher than expected attrition. This is a movement, I think, and it goes beyond the policing profession.

I think there’s a unique set of challenges. We’re competing against other departments in the area. Some of our major city departments are losing officers to smaller departments. It’s a different type of policing in smaller cities. Major cities, you got major city challenges. We have to have the type of department here in San Francisco that’s attractive to people who want to be in this profession. Having good equipment, having cars that work where paint’s not falling off of them, the facilities. Believe it or not, some people make decisions based on, “What kind of facilities am I going to be working at?”

A usual point of conflict for any chief is the police union. It seems like that relationship’s stabilized right now.

Yeah, I think it has stabilized. Sometimes we’re going to disagree … because that’s not at all uncommon for management and labor unions to disagree. But the thing in common should be, and hopefully is, what’s in the best interest of the members of this department and what’s in the best interest of The City. When those two things align … I think the relationship can be stable. I know there have been some disagreements even recently, like with the (vaccine) mandates and how that was implemented, but at the end of it, it was a professionally addressed situation.

Thanks for your time, Chief. Let’s wrap this up with a look forward. Where do you see yourself in a year?

Hopefully working hard for The City. That’s my plan anyway. I don’t know. I don’t even think that far in advance. I know at some point, everybody’s career ends. I take it one day at a time and I appreciate what I have and the opportunity to be here in this position. I don’t look too far ahead. I don’t take myself too seriously, but I am serious about my job. … I’m blessed to still be in this position.

I just try to do what I believe is right.

Editor’s note: The Arena, a column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic, explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to asaracevic@sfexaminer.com.

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