More cops are not enough

Pub date June 19, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL There was a telling trio of events June 13 that illustrated what’s wrong with the current debate over public safety issues in San Francisco and why real police reform is needed before we spend $33 million to bolster the ranks of the San Francisco Police Department, as Mayor Gavin Newsom is proposing.

Newsom and his supporters gathered on the steps of City Hall to blast a proposal by Sup. Chris Daly to remove from the budget an extra class of police cadets (which the SFPD will have a hard time even filling, given its recruiting problems) and make other changes, denouncing the supervisor for supposedly endangering city residents.

It was shrewd yet shortsighted politics for Newsom to grandstand on public safety. But it was also demagoguery. Newsom is playing to people’s fears, pandering to the Police Officers Association, and hoping that people won’t notice how little he’s done to actually make San Franciscans safer, something that simply dumping more cops into a dysfunctional system won’t help.

The murder rate has soared under Newsom, who never followed through on his promise to "change the culture at the SFPD," content to let this deeply troubled agency manage itself. Newsom opposed the requirement of police foot patrols, helped kill violence-prevention programs, watered down an early-intervention system for abusive officers, and sabotaged an innovative community policing plan. Instead, he simply throws money at the department, tells us how deeply he cares, and calls that a commitment to public safety.

On the evening of June 13, San Francisco once again experienced the price of this lack of leadership when four young men were shot in the Friendship Village public housing complex in the Western Addition, which the SFPD had promised to regularly patrol. To bring the tragic point home, there was another shooting at the same spot the next morning.

"Today I’m all over the mayor and all over the police chief and all over city agencies to give me a detailed plan," Sup. Ross Mirkarimi told Bay City News. As well he should be. For all its resources, the SFPD has yet to work with the community on a comprehensive plan for keeping it safe.

The SFPD’s wasteful overkill by cadres of do-nothing officers gets displayed for all time and again: at peace marches, street fairs (particularly last year’s Halloween in the Castro, where hordes of cops standing around doing nothing failed to catch the guy who shot nine people), and now Critical Mass, where the 40 cops who accompany it seem to have no plan for managing the event and refuse to even take reports when cars hit bikes.

How are more cops going to help this problem? What we need is real reform, but unfortunately, Newsom and his allies keep trying to give this department more authority and resources without asking for anything in exchange.

Case in point: a charter amendment by Sup. Sean Elsbernd that was heard June 13 at the Police Commission meeting. In the name of reducing the commission’s disciplinary backlog and improving officer morale, Elsbernd proposed gutting civilian police oversight by handing the police chief much of the power now held by the commission and the Office of Citizen Complaints. The proposal was blasted by the OCC and the American Civil Liberties Union as a giant step backward.

Elsbernd tells us he’s working with those groups to maintain civilian oversight while accomplishing his goal of allowing the commission to focus on big policy issues rather than individual disciplinary actions. We’re not sure that’s possible without the establishment of a new body or substantially more resources going to the underfunded OCC.

But we do share his goal of creating an open, public dialogue about the SFPD within an agency that has the authority to implement reforms. Newsom has been unwilling to facilitate a frank public discussion of the SFPD’s practices, where they can be improved, and how much money the department really needs to do the job we want it to do.

Maybe the Police Commission, under progressive new chair Theresa Sparks, is just the place to talk about real police reform. *