A line of police blocks Powell Street to the public, February 2018.

Five hours of public comment lambastes SFPD and calls for its defunding

After meeting for nine hours, the San Francisco Police Commission voted unanimously early Thursday morning to reject the SFPD’s roughly $700 million budget that included a $23 million budget cut.

The reduction included only the across-department cuts that the mayor has requested in response to the city’s worsening financial situation, and not her recent proposal to take funding from the police to redistribute to the black community.

But even this proposal failed to impress the commissioners, who were none too pleased with its lack of detail.

“I’m really disappointed in this presentation,” said Commissioner Cindy Elias. “It doesn’t have enough information. It’s lacking the total budget of the police department — those numbers aren’t even here, so how do we even know what the numbers you’re giving us are in comparison to the actual, real budget of the police department?”

“We asked for last time, when the budget was on, for you to give us a breakdown of what these salaries consist of,” she added.

“It’s hard from this to understand the big picture,” Commissioner John Hamasaki said.

The commissioners even questioned the short, bullet-pointed list of “budget priorities” cited in the proposal.

“When you talk about ‘investing in collaborative reform,’ what does that mean?” Elias asked. “We keep hearing people say all these great things, but when it comes to making it happen or walking the walk, it doesn’t.”

“It feels like it’s last-minute; it feels like it’s not complete for me to really make decisions on what we’re doing,” said Commissioner Petra DeJesus. “I’m not comfortable, I got to tell you, moving forward or passing this budget. I don’t feel like I have enough information and I certainly couldn’t gather that from the presentation we were given.”

Catherine McGuire, executive director of the San Francisco Police Department’s Strategic Management Bureau, said the timeline she was currently working under was extremely compressed. Normally the entire budget process would take six or eight months, but they’re trying to get it done in just three or four.

But this explanation only went so far.

Commissioner John Hamasaki. While the graphic says June 10, the meeting lasted until 3 a.m. on June 11.

“I try to be accommodating, I try to be fair — but we ask for the same thing every time we do a budget,” Commission Vice President Damali Taylor said. “Every time we ask for more detail. I get that it’s always a rush job, but you’ve got to start listening.”

Ultimately, all commissioners voted down the proposal.

“All departments are being asked to cut. We are among them,” said McGuire. The $23 million on the table Wednesday night was a figure the mayor’s office asked for, she said.

The cuts primarily would have come from removing 173 currently vacant positions. Patrick Leung, the department’s chief financial officer, told the commission that roughly 90 percent of the police department’s budget emanating from the city’s general fund goes to personnel costs.

The mayor’s office also asked the department to identify an additional $11 million that could be cut in a “contingency.” But the proposal, as submitted, identified only $1.4 million of where that full contingency amount would come from. 

“We’re not quite there,” McGuire said. “We are proposing that we go ahead and submit what we know we have available to cut, and then continue from there should the mayor decide she would like to take more.”

These proposed cuts were, again, unrelated to funds that Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Shamann Walton said they plan to redirect from the SFPD to black community causes. Details of those fund diversions, which Walton described to Mission Local as hopefully being “at least $25 million,” have yet to be nailed down.

“We don’t know what it looks like yet,” Police Chief William Scott told the commissioners. “Everything is still fluid right now.”

“So, there could be cuts on top of this that you’ll be coming back to us for?” Taylor asked.

“There could be,” Scott answered. “There are a lot of details we just don’t have right now.”

Even if the budget proposal had been passed by the commission, it wouldn’t have been immediately set in stone. The next steps would have been to submit it to the mayor’s office as part of the budget process — but the mayor herself has authority to change a submitted budget, McGuire said.

“She balances the budget, then submits it to the Board of Supervisors — and then they can tinker with it, too,” McGuire told the commission.

The vote came after more than five hours of public comment.  Hundreds of callers dialed in to the remote meeting to decry the police department and call for it to be defunded and abolished.

Several callers were rich with satire. One identified him or herself as Lucifer, living in Hell beneath Pacific Heights, and asked for the department’s budget to be increased by several billion dollars. Another simply played an audio clip of the infamous “Shame!” scene from Game of Thrones.

“Just so the public is clear, this commission does not have the authority to defund the police department,” Taylor said. “For anyone that has researched defunding, you’ll know that this is not something that happens [instantaneously].”

“I do think that defunding the police is a goal that we can all work towards together,” Hamasaki said, but he added that it can’t happen overnight.

A number of callers referenced a Mission Local story that broke during the meeting, revealing that the Police Commission in 2019 agreed to a recommendation from the Department of Police Accountability to terminate the officer who shot and killed Jessica Williams in May 2016.*

Sgt. Justin Erb was, instead, suspended for 45 days.

Taylor attempted to explain that vote, saying that a settlement had been worked out with the SFPD and Department of Police Accountability.

Elias said that she and DeJesus did not support the settlement.

The meeting finally ended shortly after 3 a.m.

DeJesus said that would give her just a couple of hours of rest, before she needed to get up at 5:30 a.m. to go to work.

Correction, June 15, 2020: An earlier version of this article included a paragraph that incorrectly stated that Commissioners Damali Taylor and Dion-Jay Brookter voted in favor of a reducing the disciplinary sentence for Sgt. Erb. In fact, they merely voted in favor of the settlement agreement formulated with the Department of Police Accountability. 

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Michael Toren is a reporter in San Francisco. He can be reached at michael.toren@gmail.com

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  1. The current demonstrations against police violence have produced one good slogan: Defund the Police. Let’s stick to the plain language, and not damage it by inventing new and different meanings. Is defunding the police something we really want to do? About 64% of Americans own houses. When we need police help and call them, do we want them to not come because of a lack of personnel, equipment, or communications? Slogans don’t make good public policy, and are rarely efficacious. They can rile people up in call and response. The alternative to policing is anarchy and chaos. As a people, we are not good at self-regulation. Do we want to surrender to vigilantes, private security forces, bodyguards, high walls, high noon, “stand your ground,” and Second Amendment advocates who claim to be standing between us and tyranny but who are advocates for their liberty and freedom only? I can imagine classic strategic planning for police, with substantial community input, to decide what to prioritize, what to stop doing, and what to do more of. And classic organizational development, to deal with the organizational culture problem obviously present in too many police departments of the supervisory chain of command losing control of the blue suits, or never establishing control over them in the first place. And classic human resources efforts, to hire the right people—ones without authoritarian traits, high control needs, or racism, and with cultural competency and thoughtful, Constitutionally based responses. Defunding police also opens the door to problems like those experienced in Indian Country—too much land patrolled by too few police, with resulting horrors of domestic violence, women disappearing, etc. But no one when crafting a slogan says, “Improve the Police,” or “Get Rid of the Bad Apples” or “More Community Policing.” Some slogans from past demonstrations made sense and may have had some good effect, like “I Am A Man” and “End the Bombing,” and “Bring the Boys Home Now.” When we’re faced with a totally evil enemy and have overwhelming force, a slogan like “Unconditional Surrender” from World War II can be useful as a statement of public policy. But defund the police? An essential service? Like defunding the water department, the electric utility, or the trash collectors? Heck, we get the whim whams when our Internet connection goes down. “Defund the Police” is as bad a slogan as the “War on Drugs” or the “War on Poverty.” It’s an invitation to failure. And that failure can be very big, like the way the War on Drugs led to mass incarceration of African-American men. I can imagine that the role of police can be constricted, for example if many more community mental health services were provided, if social workers dealt with the homeless, if the police were not wasted on parking and left turn violations, and if much stronger gun control laws were in effect. But to defund the police before such social supports are in place? We may not like the idea that the police are in the social control business, but until we can control ourselves as a society, a people, and a community, the alternatives are lacking. We live in fear today, afraid to point out violations of the social contract, in part because we’re afraid that the person who needs to be confronted will pull out a gun and shoot us. If we don’t want to carry our own guns and face down malefactors, we need the police to go in harm’s way for us. So let’s defund bad police, bad polices, and bad practices, but not become vigilantes and posses. We don’t want Judge Roy Bean, the Hanging Judge West of the Pecos. We want rule of law, due process, fairness of procedure, equity and nondiscrimination.

    1. Instead of defunding “bad policies and practices”, you need to continuously train the police. All of their tactics are perishable skills, and if they don’t practice them by training weekly or at a minimum monthly, then those skills diminish.

      The carotid restraint is taught to not exceed 15 seconds. Police used to be taught the carotid restraint in the Academy, and then there was no further training in it after. So now you have cops out on the street who received academy training in defensive tactics and then don’t receive any more training- unless they pay for it themselves out of pocket- for the rest of their careers. Training is expensive for someone to pay for out of pocket.

      The city needs to invest funds into training cops on best practices, updated tactics, training with their shifts etc. these are the people they “work” with every day, but they hardly practice take downs, building searches etc with people other than their partner.

      You are doing a disservice to taking funds away from the department. Have someone take a look at where all the funds are actually going and start redistributing it to areas that will benefit police; equipment, training( not classroom exercises where you don’t actually have hands on training) , competitive salaries. Guess what. Go take a look at how many cops are leaving this department, and others, and how many are actually signing up to be cops.

      Take funds away from areas that aren’t deemed necessary. The garden Project, homeless outreach team( this shouldn’t be on the police), civilianize certain desk jobs so more patrol officers are on the streets.

      This department had to lower their standard to hire the sorely needed cops, because a lot of the younger generation doesn’t find law enforcement to be a good career anymore.

      Training benefits everyone. It makes sure your cops are up to date on tactics, allows staff to monitor cops to read how they are actually using the tactics, and allows staff to retrain cops if excessive force is seen during training. You can also weed out the ones that are terrible at defensive tactics and not showing improvement.

    2. San Francisco homeownership is much lower than 64%. The need to parse out the non-violent calls to other departments.