Despite evidence, the board votes 6-5 to link police staffing to population
By Tim Redmond
JUNE 24, 2015 – The Board of Supervisors voted yesterday to approve a resolution that could lead to the city hiring at least 283 more police officers, at a cost of more than $40 million a year – in addition to the 241 new cops who are already in the mayor’s existing budget.
The vote was 6-5, with the board splitting along what have become predictable lines on critical policy issues.
The discussion centered on a critical question: Do cops prevent crime? Is increased police staffing the best way to make the city safer? Is spending on more officers (at roughly $175,000 a year in salary and benefits) the most effective or efficient way to promote public safety?
But there was a larger issue hovering over the debate, one that brought dozens of protestors, most of them young, to the board chambers. As Sup. David Campos pointed out, there have been a number of incidents, both nationally and locally, that have driven wedges between communities and the police – and the SF board has been silent.
If the only formal move the supes made, after Ferguson, after the racist and homophobic texts, after the killings of Alex Nieto and Amilcar Perez Lopez, was to hire more cops … well, he said, “we will look back on this and say it was one of the worst mistakes we’ve ever made.”
The crowd was noisy, and twice many in the audience stood up and turned their backs. On several occasions, sheriff’s deputies had to remove vocal protesters from the chambers, and when the final vote came, the deputies pretty much cleared the room.
The resolution came from Sups. Scott Wiener and Malia Cohen, and called for tying the future strength of the Police Department to increases in the city’s population. (No mention of what might happen in the unlikely event that the population were to drop.)
Wiener went through a list of the things the department can’t do. “There are too few officers to do community policing,” he said. “There’s not enough traffic enforcement, despite an epidemic of traffic collisions. We need more police officers.”
Cohen acknowledged that there were areas where the department could perform better, and she said that “the root causes of violence” can’t be solved just by police. “But the focus of this resolution is on police staffing,” she said, “not about every element of violence prevention.”
Sup. John Avalos then offered evidence that increased police staffing levels is not correlated with lower crime – at least not in San Francisco.
He showed slides comparing the rates of violent crime and property crime in the city in 1994, when the population was 742,000, and 2013, when the city had grown to 820,000 – with roughly the same numbers of sworn officers.
Crime actually dropped in almost all categories over that period, he said.
In fact, he noted, the International Association of Chiefs of Police opposes the concept of linking police staffing to population, since there are so many other factors the come into play. “Ratios such as officers per thousand are a totally inappropriate basis for staffing,” the group says.
The impact of more cops on the streets might not be entirely positive, Avalos said – when then-President Bill Clinton vowed to put 100,000 more cops on the streets and gave cities federal money to beef up their forces, “we saw higher rates of incarceration,” which drove more prison construction.
“If we increase the police force, we will see more young people of color behind bars,” he said.
Sup. Jane Kim noted that there are other ways to put more officers on the streets – by, for example, allowing the Sheriff’s Department to transport prisoners and by growing the homeless outreach team. “I know there are a lot of calls to the police about homeless people,” she said.
She said that “population based police staffing policy is far too simplistic. Crime doesn’t grow consistently with population.”
Defying what Wiener and others had argued, Kim said “police officers do not prevent crime.” But, she said, “we do know that keeping a kid in school prevents crime.”
Which led to a remarkable suggestion: What if the city decided to take the 283 most at-risk youth and commit to spending $175,000 a year on each of them? “We would make sure they have a secure home, three meals a day, the best education and tutors, and a guarantee that their college education was paid for – and that they could take unpaid summer internships since money wouldn’t be an issue,” Kim said. “Would that make our city safer? I think it would.”
Kim, unlike the sponsors of the measure, was realistic about the money. “The more we fund police, the less we found housing and schools,” she said.
Sup. Mark Farrell insisted that there’s no zero-sum game: “I think we should do both,” he said. But there’s never enough money to do everything.
Farrell went on: “The public expects public safety to be our top priority,” he said. He added: “People need to know that when they commit crimes there are going to be consequences so it doesn’t happen again.”
That’s a remarkable statement, since there’s a lot of evidence that incarcerating people doesn’t stop them from committing crimes; by making it harder, sometimes impossible, for them to find jobs, jail terms can actually increase the likelihood that someone will end up in a life of crime.
Sup. Eric Mar called the Wiener-Cohen bill a “mean-spirited piece of legislation” and said “this is not a way to make our communities safer.” He brought up the Nieto and Perez Lopez killings and said that the way the city addresses police shootings is “really important.”
Campos is the only supervisor who actually served on the Police Commission. He argued that a measure like this would be divisive and send a terrible message to parts of the community who still have serious issues with police trust and credibility. “Please don’t move this forward,” he said. “The symbol of this is going to send the wrong message.”
Also: Campos said that he had spoken to members of the Police Commission who “didn’t know this was happening.” Which hardly seems like a good way to make police policy.
Campos tried to send the measure back to committee. He failed, 6-5. Avalos offered amendments that failed, 6-5.
Breed offered amendments that didn’t change the basic thrust of the resolution, and they won, 6-5. Avalos tried again to send the measure back to committee, and he lost, 6-5.
So it was clear where this was going.
The mostly young people stood and turned their backs as the final vote was taken. They started chanting and the deputies cleared them all out. And the board, by the same 6-5, decided that the first message the supervisors should send about the police in 2015 was that we need to hire a whole lot more of them.
Voting for the cops: Wiener, Cohen, Christensen, Tang, Breed, and Farrell. Voting for a more nuanced approach to public safety: Avalos, Campos, Kim, Mar, and Yee.
This is how the board votes these days. And the District Three election will either change that or leave it in place.