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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Police staffing levels - do we need more police as SF's population grows?

At Tuesday's SF Board of Supervisor's meeting, item 23 on the agenda is a resolution proposed by Supervisors Wiener, Cohen, and Farrell entitled "Establishing a Population-Based Police Staffing Policy."

In 1994, a City Charter amendment labeled as Prop D was passed that established a police staffing level of not fewer than 1971 full duty sworn officers. We are currently at 1730 full duty sworn officers, so this resolution before the board on Tuesday is meant to create a BoS policy that the city do a better job of not just getting to that 1994-mandated goal, but actually increasing that goal to 2254 officers based on a report by a police research an policy group called the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF.

While it seems to follow that the greater the population, the more police you need, there are a few things to keep in mind before rushing to support an increase in police officers. A recent survey of studies on increasing policing in an effort to decrease crime has found that a 10% increase in the number of police officers results in a drop of about 3% in property crime. There also doesn't appear to be as strong a link between police numbers and violent crime as there is for property crime. Interestingly, in San Francisco over the past year, violent and property crime have both declined in the past year by 4.5 and 5.3%, respectively. No, a year does not a trend make, but at the same time, this decline happened with fewer police than we are 'supposed' to have and with no increase in the number of police during that period. So what happened to reduce these crimes? Perhaps it's that police are focusing their efforts on these types of crimes and are using better methods than they once did.

In a report on the City's Budget and Legislative Analyst's website looking at 1994's Prop D, it was recommended to the Board of Supervisors that they consider increasing civilianization of the police force, taking sworn officers from out behind the administrative desk and placing them on the street fighting crime where they belong. While it would cost the city to hire new staff, the cost pales in comparison to that of increasing the number of police academy classes that would be needed to fill 241 positions on the force, not to mention the amount of time it would take to train all these officers.

In most of the large 'peer cities' supervisors are comparing San Francisco to, civilianization has increased so as to ensure police are on the street and not acting as clerical staff as they are here in San Francisco. This may be one reason why their crime rates are lower than ours.

Perhaps a better way to nearly immediately increase the number of already-trained officers on the street would be to hire civilian clerical staff to do work that some much-needed beat officers are doing today. This would get the number of police on the street up, and may even save money in the long run as fewer police academy classes would be required.

Prop D was very clear, and it's clear we're not at the levels set out by it because you can't just add police officers. Instead of an unenforceable policy at the BoS to increase police numbers, civilianize the office staff at police stations and get a staffing agreement that dictates that a specific number of police will be on duty and patrolling the community out of each station.

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