John Fitzinger negotiates his police interceptor into a space on 23rd Street, pulls on his hat, a silver shield set squarely above the brim, and lumbers toward Mission Street to begin walking his beat.

Nearing the corner of 24th, the star on his chest sends a loitering cluster of teenagers in baggy pants shuffling to the opposite side of the street.

“Gang members,” Fitzinger explains. “They’ll come back when I am gone.”

Fitzinger, despite appearances, is not a cop. He is a Patrol Special.

Patrol Specials have been a part of San Francisco’s law enforcement team since before the Gold Rush. They began in 1832, before the police department was established; the city charter allowed certain private companies to enforce public laws.

Those companies were called Patrol Specials, and 13 are still operating in San Francisco today, down from roughly six dozen in 1994, just before the Police Commission voted to strip away their power to arrest suspects, according to SF Weekly. Now, a year-long study presented to the commission last month recommends ending their relationship with the city entirely.

“During the course of our study, we discovered that while they publicly call themselves San Francisco Patrol Special Police, they are in fact not police, or peace officers. They’re not sworn officers at all,” said Kym Craven, director of the Public Safety Strategies Group, the consulting firm that produced the report.

The only way to be become a Patrol Special is through a lengthy process of applications and background checks that can take years. Once approved, the city of San Francisco also trains and oversees Patrol Specials.

The city, however, does not recruit them, pay them or direct their day-to-day activities.

Patrol Specials are hired by private clients such as businesses, individuals or landlords who believe their needs are not met by the police department alone.

The clients typically do not require or cannot afford private security guards. An armed guard posted at a retail store would cost the business owner between $25 and $30 per hour and earn roughly $20 per hour, according to Kim King, president and CEO of King Security in San Francisco.

Also, security guards are prohibited by law from patrolling the streets and must remain in a fixed position on private property. So businesses will join forces and contribute to the cost of having a neighborhood Patrol Special.

Patrol Special clients contribute on a monthly basis for the services they receive, ranging from under $50 to several hundred per month, depending on their needs. The clients’ contributions are pooled to pay the Patrol Specials the roughly $25 per hour they take home.

Ann Grogan, who lives in Glen Park and runs a business from her home, has been a Patrol Special client for two years. She said her neighborhood needs supplemental private police on the streets, not a stationary guard, and she has joined with other businesses to contribute to a fund that pays the guard.

“There aren’t any huge stores in my neighborhood for a guard to stand [by],” she said. “Crime was occurring on the sidewalks, not in stores. People were snatching iPods right out of people’s ears coming off BART, and robbing ATM machines. We need that visible presence that Patrol Specials provide to help deter crime.”

The 40-page report by the Public Safety Strategies Group concluded with the suggestion that Patrol Specials be given a transition period, after which they would have no more privileges than a private security firm.

“We’re not saying they shouldn’t be allowed to work or that their clients don’t need additional security, but they should be hired as private security with no connection to the city,” Craven said.

The year-long study also concluded that too often Patrol Specials overstep the bounds of their authority, present a financial liability to the city and can be a source of confusion to citizens.

“They present themselves in a way that most citizens would not know they’re not police, and [the city] can’t be everywhere to monitor them,” Craven said.

“We learned of Patrol Specials who actually went out to an underpass to move along homeless folks, when there are no Patrol Special clients in that area. This becomes a major liability for the city.”

Fitzinger, who works the Mission District beat, disagreed that Patrol Specials are anything less than an asset to citizens and law enforcement agencies.

“We don’t go out and look for things to do. Our function is to service our clients, but if I see someone being assaulted during a major crime, I am going to let dispatch know. We get involved as concerned citizens, which is something anyone would do.”

Prior to 1994, Patrol Specials were able to make arrests and file police reports, but today their role is primarily to check in on their clients and provide a uniformed presence on the streets they patrol. They can, however, make a citizen’s arrest if they witness a felony.

But the line between police and Patrol Specials is still a blurry one for most people.

Patrol Specials begin their shifts by checking in at the local police station, and have access to the latest police information that would be denied to a private citizen or security guard, including the ability to transmit on police radio frequencies.

They wear the same dark blue as SFPD, with a patch and star that both feature the word “police” prominently. To the average observer, only a thin, light-blue stripe down the side of their uniforms distinguishes a Patrol Special from a police officer.

Patrol Specials also acknowledge that they may be indistinguishable from police officers when on the road.

“A lot of us buy used police cars,” Fitzinger said. “They’re conveniently suitable for the job we do, even if we can’t have red and blue lights in them.”

Patrol Specials use police shooting ranges to train and qualify with their firearms, and receive additional training by the city before they are hired — perks that Craven says are unnecessarily paid for by the city.

The report estimates the city’s expenses for training, oversight and other administrative costs associated with Patrol Specials at $300,000 annually. More than half of this budget goes to pay the salaries of one full-time sergeant and one part-time lieutenant who oversee the Patrol Special Program.

With only 13 active Patrol Specials operating in San Francisco, the city’s $300,000 a year comes to just over $23,000 per year for each guard.

“What other private companies receive that kind of special treatment from the city?” Craven asked. “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t be a private business and work for the city. It makes no sense in terms of governance, because the city has no control over how they’re spending their time.”

Fitzinger and others who work for or employ Patrol Specials expressed serious doubts about the report’s legitimacy. He and several citizens at the meeting last month wanted to know why the report was entirely negative and offered no suggestions for compromises that would not require a change in the city charter.

Craven said her firm was hired to conduct a study of how Patrol Specials fit into the mission, vision and values of the San Francisco Police Department, but the report concludes with a strong recommendation to eliminate the program altogether — a conclusion that came as a surprise to Patrol Specials, who were expecting suggestions for improved training or more oversight.

“Their job was to figure out how we can best be utilized, and that’s not what happened,” Fitzinger said.

Ken Craig serves on the board of directors for Castro Community on Patrol, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting safety in the Castro District, and works closely with both Patrol Specials and the police department. He said part of the problem is that Patrol Specials usually provide security at sporting events, street fairs and nightclubs — venues where police officers have been able to work overtime hours under what is called the 10B program.

Police officers can volunteer to work up to 20 overtime hours a week at non-city-sponsored events, such as the annual Bay to Breakers 12K Run. Event organizers pay for the extra police presence, and the police department in turn pays the officers from the $87 per hour it charges for their time, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

From 2007 to 2009, officers in San Francisco were paid $114.8 million in 10B overtime hours by the city, according to a report released by the City Controller’s office in August 2010.

The report also said the city is not properly regulating how many overtime hours officers can work per week, which is supposed to be limited to 20 per officer.

Prior to the 1970s, those hours may have been worked by a Patrol Special, Craig said.

“This market was very lucrative, and one in which the Patrol Special Police had been very successful for over 150 years,” Craig wrote.

Craven, a former police officer, denied any conflict between the report and the police department’s overtime program.

“We work for the Controller’s Office, one of the most unbiased organizations in the city,” Craven said.

The Police Commission will consider the report’s findings in a meeting in which commissioners hope to hear from citizens on all sides of the issue before deciding whether or not to recommend that San Franciscans vote on amending the city charter. The date for this hearing has not yet been set.