San Francisco has too few police officers for a city our size

‘Weeding out bad cops and hiring better police officers are not mutually exclusive’

By Joel P. Engardio

Special to The Examiner

San Francisco has too few police officers for a city our size. City Hall commissioned a study on police staffing last year. It said we should have about 400 more officers to adequately cover our public safety needs.

The police department needs to hire 100 new officers next year just to remain at its currently insufficient staffing level, the San Francisco Examiner reported.

When Mayor London Breed and Police Chief Bill Scott requested 200 new officers during budget negotiations in June, members of the Board of Supervisors balked and the compromise was to hire only 135 over the next two years.

Now Mayor Breed announced she wants to supplement the SFPD budget so existing officers can work more overtime to “deal head on with the open air drug dealing that is destroying our city.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of police officers are nearing retirement as crimes such as home burglaries, retail theft and car break-ins are rising.

I understand there is a movement to reduce police presence in cities nationwide. I support efforts to have counselors take the lead in calls of mental health distress, which will let armed police officers focus on serious crime. But San Francisco is already operating at a deficit of officers that is only getting worse.

In June, there were 1,780 full-duty police officers in San Francisco. By November, the number had fallen to 1,699, according to San Francisco Police Department spokesperson Matt Dorsey.

Dorsey explained that 1,699 is the number of officers able to engage in full and active duty on the streets. But it’s even lower because the 1,699 count includes officers in administrative desk jobs who are rarely on the street.

Dorsey said the 1,699 number does not include the 156 officers who are assigned only to the airport. And it omits the 225 officers who aren’t working because they’re on injury, disability, disciplinary or family leave (which is a typical number at any given time).

So if we only have 1,699 full-duty officers who can work the streets of San Francisco, how many do we need? At least 2,176, according to a city-commissioned study by the Matrix Consulting Group. The report concluded current police staffing is “severely inadequate.”

A per capita comparison of police officer numbers in U.S. cities shows Chicago has 44 police officers for every 10,000 residents. New York City has 42. But San Francisco only has 26. Are the numbers in Chicago and New York too high? Even if officers in those cities were reduced by a third, San Francisco would still be trailing.

That’s why City Hall should commit the resources needed for the recruitment, training and retention of a properly sized police force in San Francisco.

An opportunity

Some might worry that adding officers to The City’s force could increase the chance of getting more bad cops. But it is an opportunity to achieve the opposite. We could replenish the force with a new generation of officers who embrace police reforms, are trained in de-escalation and are truly committed to serving their communities.

A recent NPR report suggests there are benefits to increased police patrols in neighborhoods. It said more community policing and “the power of deterrence” is a cost-effective way to reduce serious crime without “having to lock up a bunch of people.” It said research “supports the case for police reform while also reminding us why police are important for public safety.”

A panel of 50 criminal justice experts were recently asked if increasing police budgets will improve public safety. More than two-thirds agreed. They were surveyed by the Public Safety Lab at New York University and the Justice Tech Lab at Texas A&M University.

There was even more agreement among the criminal justice experts that improving public safety also requires increased social service budgets in housing, health and education — along with increased accountability for police misconduct.

Spending more to address the root causes of crime, weeding out bad cops and hiring better police officers are not mutually exclusive solutions for making communities safer.

Stringent hiring practices along with intensive and ongoing training can create a police force where reports of systemic racism only appear in the history books.

It’s possible to have lower crime without overcrowded jails. The key factor is deterrence.

We can support police and prison reform while asking public officials to keep everyone safe because safety and justice go together. Let’s commit to new strategies that will make community-oriented policing a reality.

Joel P. Engardio is executive director of Stop Crime SF.

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