Budget can't shortchange police

It is hardly surprising that budget deficits bring ugly cuts to important public services. When less revenue becomes available for government funding, even the most popular and in-demand programs must absorb cutbacks. San Francisco faces a projected $233 million budget deficit for next fiscal year, yet the Police Department has submitted a draft budget seeking a 15 percent increase from last year.

The Examiner actually does not blame police Chief Heather Fong for requesting more money in a period of forced citywide belt-tightening. She is simply responding to loudly intensifying community demands to strengthen crime-fighting by placing more officers on the street.

The City’s 98 homicides last year were the highest total in more than a decade. Gunshot and stab wound statistics were also high, despite police data showing an overall decrease of violent crime in 2007. Much of the gun violence seemed particularly disturbing in its mindlessness, with a significant percentage of victims being merely innocent bystanders struck by stray bullets from drive-by shootings.

At a time when the SFPD was understaffed by several hundred officers and a substantial number of veterans were expected to retire soon, the public vociferously demanded a more effectively visible street presence by police. Chief Fong’s 2008 budget request was saying: This is what the people want police to do more of; and here is what each of the elements cost. So you need to decide how much you can spend.

The department plans to train 250 new officers at a cost of $8.6 million for the 2008-09 fiscal year and almost $22 million for 2009-10. The budget also wants a one-time $6 million to update the aging patrol-car fleet. Proposed new positions would add another $39 million, including 20 new civilian hires allowing those officers filling those jobs to move onto the street.

The Police Department’s 2007-08 base spending was approximately $407 million, and Fong’s new budget calls for an increase of more than $24 million. The chief said $15 million — almost two-thirds of the boost — is due to a recently approved 25 percent pay increase for officers during the next four years.

Naturally, the most direct way to make more money available for expanding the police force would be to somehow negotiate reduction or postponement of the contracted salary increases. But gaining any such concessions would inevitably require pledges of greater rewards to come, which could cause even more problems in the long run.

With a $233 million deficit in the offing, it would be truly astonishing if the Police Department obtained anything close to what it asks. But we can hope at least that the SFPD is largely spared from the worst of the mayor’s budget-cutting ax, while The City also faces a worrisome problem with violent crime.

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