The intertwined cases of Patrol Special Police Association President Jane Warner and former Assistant Patrol Special Officer Willie Adams are wending their way through the San Francisco Police Commission and municipal courts. A welcome side effect of this process has been to spotlight a re-examination of whether any purpose remains for this strange anachronism of The City’s rowdy Barbary Coast era.
San Franciscans now occasionally encounter Patrol Special officers strolling along neighborhood shopping streets, schmoozing with the regulars and generally looking noticeably dumpier than a genuine SFPD officer — even though they also carry guns and wear uniforms, badges and insignia closely resembling official police issue.
There are also odd remnants of direct interaction with the Police Commission, which must approve the background checks of Patrol Special officers and assistant officers before signing off on their hiring. The commissioners take over as hearing board for disciplinary complaints against Patrol Special personnel, which is how Warner and Adams got into trouble.
Warner is charged with allowing Adams to work as a security unit member, even though his final background check was rejected. Adams had patrolled for nine months on a preliminary check, but after losing his appointment he sued The City, claiming discrimination for being black, gay and HIV positive. Meanwhile, Adams faces criminal court charges following a tipster-triggered police raid on his home that allegedly discovered drugs, as well as unauthorized badges, guns and ID cards.
Patrol Special police were founded in 1847 by neighborhood merchant associations willing to buy a more consistent on-street security presence than Police Department budgets could provide. The unit actually became officially recognized by the City Charter in 1932 and fielded as many as 400 officers during the 1970s.
But things began slipping and the Police Commission stripped the Patrol Specials of much of their power.
A curt posting on The City’s www.sfgov.org Web site states that Patrol Specials are not allowed to make arrests or enforce traffic regulations. They are not sworn peace officers and have minimal exposure to Police Academy training.
About all that still sets apart the Patrol Special police from ordinary private rent-a-cops is that they are The City’s only security guards allowed to walk the streets with guns. And they still carry out the quaint practice of “owning” and selling or bequeathing their revenue-producing beats, an old-fashioned privilege somewhat resembling the trading of taxi medallions.
It is fine for city merchants to fund their own extra security with qualified guards. But there seems little point for the anachronistic Patrol Special pseudo-police to exist in today’s San Francisco. Their services could be provided by state-licensed security companies, and the Police Commission would no longer be required to take time away from genuine police issues.