Most of us have seen the video. It shows a man filling up a trash bag with merchandise from a San Francisco Walgreens. Then he simply rides out the front door on a bicycle.
The viral clip has attracted more than 6 million views on social media and provided political ammunition for anyone trying to frame San Francisco as a lawless place.
But does that mean San Francisco needs more police officers? It’s a complicated question that garners passionate response, especially given the nationwide movement to defund the police.
Not surprisingly, Chief Bill Scott wants more cops.
“It’s not rocket science,” Scott told a Board of Supervisors budget committee last week. “We don’t have people running into stores with a garbage bag and running out of the stores when an officer is standing right there.”
While Scott knows he can’t have a cop on every corner, the chief is seeking $5.1 million to hire 100 officers in the next fiscal year. He argues that staffing up the San Francisco Police Department will help prevent property crimes in The City, like the brazen retail theft caught on video and the car break-ins that are starting to rise in tourist areas as the pandemic ends.
The chief isn’t just looking to combat crime. He’s trying to prevent the ranks of his the police force from thinning out as officers retire or leave for other agencies. Part of the problem is a wave of officers who joined the department in the 1990s as federal funding increased under President Bill Clinton are reaching the ends of their careers.
“We have about 500 officers right now who have the age and the time of service that they can retire if they choose to,” Scott said.
As of this year, the SFPD has shrunk to 1,780 officers — down from a recent peak of 1,869 officers in 2019 — and is expected to keep diminishing unless more recruits are hired. Hiring 100 recruits would sustain the size of the department or slightly increase it, Scott said.
Meanwhile, a recent study, commissioned by The City and conducted before the pandemic by an independent consulting firm called Matrix, found that the department should have 2,176 officers to adequately respond to calls for service.
“We need more cops,” police union Vice President Tracy McCray told The Examiner. “To have these other programs — officers on bikes, officers on foot in major retail corridors — you want all that. But we can’t do it because you’ve got a computer in your patrol car showing 20 to 30 pending calls for service that you gotta get cops to.”
But the police aren’t going to get more officers without a fight in today’s political climate, as activists push The City to slash law enforcement funding and support alternatives to policing for responding to homelessness and mental health calls such as the the Street Crisis Response Team launched last November.
And while police visibility might deter some incidents, some city officials are attacking the idea that more police means less crime overall.
Police Commissioner John Hamasaki has seen the pitfalls of this strategy play out as police engage in a game of “whack-a-mole” with drug dealers in the Tenderloin. Whenever officers create a large police presence in the area, he said the dealers simply move over a block.
“A police officer guarding a retail store may sound great in concept, but thieves aren’t stupid. They adapt,” Hamasaki told The Examiner. “In a city like San Francisco, there’s always another store to hit a block or two away. … None of this is sustainable unless we meaningfully address the underlying causes of crime.”
At the hearing last week, Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton questioned whether there is a correlation between crime and police staffing. He pointed to the fact that car break-ins reached an all-time high in 2017, with nearly 30,000 reported in San Francisco, despite the department having 1,831 officers.
“Burglaries were up when we had more officers, then they dropped and now they are coming back up,” Walton said. “So, the reason they dropped was not necessarily because we had more police officers on the force.”
Supervisor Dean Preston said there is “always an excuse to increase police funding.”
“Crime goes down, it’s because of the increased policing so we need to keep that up. Crime goes up, we need more police out there because crime is going up,” Preston said at the hearing. “We have got to do something different.”
Budget talks are continuing between the police and Board of Supervisors. Mayor London Breed has proposed increasing the police budget by $5.9 million to $661 million in the coming fiscal year compared to the budget previously adopted by the board last year.
Meanwhile, voters approved Proposition E, in November 2020, to create a methodology for determining police staffing needs in San Francisco. The department is expected to provide an update on its findings by the end of August. The committee is set to resume the conversation on the police budget on Thursday.