Editorial: Breed's ballot measure isn't about public safety

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday October 18, 2023
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San Francisco Mayor London Breed. Photo: Bill Wilson
San Francisco Mayor London Breed. Photo: Bill Wilson

San Francisco Mayor London Breed this week joined with Safer San Francisco to announce a measure for the March 2024 ballot that proponents said will "remove obstacles that have been put in place that prevent San Francisco Police Department officers from being able to more effectively and efficiently do their jobs." At a time of understaffing in SFPD, this measure might at first blush look appealing. But there are potential problems, particularly around the desire to change rules regarding police pursuits. Breed is facing a tough reelection next year, and already has two major opponents, District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí and Daniel Lurie, the founder and former CEO of the anti-poverty Tipping Point Community and an heir to the Levi Strauss fortune.

First, we should point out that the city's new two-year budget that Breed signed in late July includes funding for 220 police officers, so the staffing shortage is being addressed. It takes time to hire officers, have them complete an academy class, and undergo other training before they are sent out on the street. But the staffing shortage is real; even when all these new officers are hired, the city will still be down about 80 or so officers.

SFPD last revised its pursuit policy in 2013 and the goal was to prevent injuries or fatalities while engaged in high-speed chases. The department's policy is to "safely apprehend a fleeing violator without unnecessarily endangering the public and/or officers." In May, however, a man was killed while police pursued a carjacking suspect, as Mission Local reported. Other incidents have also occurred. SFPD has tried to utilize caution with its pursuits, and Department of Police Accountability policy director Janelle Caywood told Mission Local that her team was reviewing whether SFPD's pursuit policy should be changed.

Now here comes Breed and Safer San Francisco who want officers to "actively pursue suspects of felonies and violent misdemeanors, including retail theft, vehicle theft, and auto burglaries as long as the pursuit can be done safely." It seems like a recipe for more bystander injuries and possible fatalities. High-speed chases are dangerous. Yet only a day before the mayor announced the ballot measure, she issued a statement praising Governor Gavin Newsom for signing Assembly Bill 645 that will allow the city to implement speed cameras under a pilot program. "Higher speeds increase the likelihood of severe injuries or fatalities when a collision occurs," the mayor's news release stated. So, on the one hand the mayor believes police officers should be able to more easily engage in high-speed pursuits, while on the other she's "thrilled" the city will be participating in a pilot program to catch speeders.

There are other elements to the Safer San Francisco ballot measure, including giving police access to 21st century technology and tools (i.e., cameras and surveillance technologies), reducing administrative paperwork, and preventing the police commission from "prioritizing ideology before community safety," as the release puts it. The item referring to the commission troubles us. Breed has made four appointments to the commission (the Board of Supervisors makes the other three), and last year caused an uproar when it was reported that one of her appointees, Max Carter-Oberstone, had been instructed by the mayor's office to sign an undated "draft" resignation letter. It became an issue after he disagreed with Breed's choice as to who should be president of the commission. The San Francisco Standard then reported that dozens of mayoral appointees had been asked to sign similar letters, presumably as a way to get rid of them if they did something the mayor didn't like. Ultimately, City Attorney David Chiu, whom Breed appointed, issued an opinion last fall that while the practice wasn't illegal, it could open the city to legal scrutiny. Breed rescinded all of the resignation letters that had been submitted.

Now, this ballot measure wants to "reform" the commission. The mayor's release states that the police commission micromanages SFPD and is "adversarial to policy solutions supported by community safety leaders." The release stated that under the measure the commission will require that any changes that the commission wants to make needs to involve engaging with local merchants, neighborhood leaders, and experts like retired peace officers "who understand the day-to-day challenges and impacts of their decisions and what real-life conditions require of police officers." The measure will "prevent the police commission from micromanaging the police chief and ensure all new policies put in place do not require more than 20% of an officer's total on-duty time be spent on administrative duties," the release stated.

To be clear, the police commission with civilian appointees dates back to 1878. Its mission is to set policy for the police department and to conduct disciplinary hearings on charges of police misconduct filed by the chief of police or director of the Department of Police Accountability, impose discipline in such cases as warranted, and hear police officers' appeals from discipline imposed by the chief of police. By and large, we believe the body does a good job even in these challenging times. Passing a ballot measure is micromanaging, in our opinion, and not in the best interest of the city or SFPD. Trying to find consensus among business and community leaders likely will be a fraught practice, resulting in nothing getting accomplished.

All of this suggests that Breed is feeling pressure as she runs for reelection. The public safety crisis on city streets and smash-and grab robberies are real problems, to be sure. But hamstringing the seven people who sit on the commission is not likely to change that. It's possible that SFPD's pursuit policy needs to be updated, but not to the point where patrol vehicles are speeding down city streets every time a Walgreens is robbed. This does not seem like a good measure; it reeks of desperation on the part of the mayor, who conveniently will be able to be the public face of the initiative and raise gobs of money to promote it.

Yes, people are fed up with property crimes in the city. But the better alternative is to move ahead with hiring the more than 200 officers funded in the city budget.

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