As the nation explores alternatives to policing, city health officials have found that law enforcement may not be the best answer for all their security needs at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and other facilities.
The Department of Public Health has released new details of a proposal that calls for replacing some of the sheriff’s deputies who guard its medical facilities with teams of trained mental health professionals.
The proposal, which is due to be heard before the Health Commission for the first time Tuesday, calls for reducing about 11 of the 29 deputy positions at ZSFGH, while another seven or so deputy positions would be eliminated from other facilities including Laguna Honda Hospital.
The proposal would instead use the cost-savings of the more expensive deputy positions to expand an existing team of health care workers who already respond to incidents using de-escalation tactics, and only call upon law enforcement if further help is necessary.
The proposal comes after some hospital nurses and staff raised concerns about deputies disproportionately using force against patients of color. Nearly half, or 62, of the 129 use-of-force incidents reported by deputies in fiscal year 2019-20 involved a Black patient, according to DPH.
“This is an inequity that the department, community members and staff advocates find unacceptable,” Basil Price, director of security for DPH, said in a letter to the Health Commission. “The department has concluded that healthcare-specific alternatives to law enforcement are more appropriate for meeting the goal of safety and security in many situations and environments.”
But other hospital staff have argued that law enforcement is needed to protect them from violence. A petition opposing the removal of deputies garnered more than 4,000 signatures last year.
While the proposal stops short of demands for DPH to remove all deputies from its sites, advocates call the plans “promising.”
“We are excited to see the investment in community safety teams with the hopes that these systems will outgrow and replace the sheriffs next year,” Dr. Erinma Ukoha, a physician at ZSFGH, said in a statement.
Ukoha said DPH has “the opportunity to become a leader in ending the public health crisis of law enforcement violence against our Black and Brown patients and community members. Another way is possible.”
Dr. Grant Colfax, the director of Public Health, first indicated in July 2020, in the fallout over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, that he would seek out a more “trauma-informed, person-centered approach to safety and security across our public health sites.”
Colfax cited disproportionate use-of-force numbers against Black patients as a problem at the time.
But Ken Lomba, president of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, disputed any suggestion that the deputies might be racial profiling patients. He said use-of-force incidents at the hospital tend to result from people calling for help, not from encounters initiated by the deputies themselves.
“Dr. Grant Colfax has given in to politics,” Lomba said. “We believe the voters should decide if less deputy sheriffs at the ZSFGH would make it safer. If ZSFGH wants us there it should be written in the City Charter to stop these bad decisions. We are deeply concerned for the safety of patients, visitors, and employees at ZSFGH.”
While DPH is considering reducing sheriff positions, a spokesperson for Sheriff Paul Miyamoto said the deputies would be reassigned to other roles within the Sheriff’s Department.
Spokesperson Nancy Crowley said the sheriff has “embraced, encouraged and trained deputy sheriffs and sheriff cadets in the use of de-escalation tactics to avoid the use of force whenever possible.”
“As we move forward, the Sheriff’s Office will continue to respond and adapt, protect health care workers from harm, ensuring the safety and security of hospital staff, patients and visitors,” Crowley said.
The proposal calls for replacing the deputies with 44 additional health care workers on the so-called Behavioral Emergency Response Team.
While the positions are less expensive than hiring deputies, the proposal calls for more bodies being on the payroll and is expected to cost an additional $1.4 million next fiscal year and $1.8 million in the subsequent year.
If approved by the Health Commission, officials expect the costs to be included in Mayor London Breed’s two-year city budget proposal, which will be submitted to the Board of Supervisors by June 1 for adoption.