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Reform/defund/abolish the San Francisco Police Department: What we can do, what we can’t — and what we won’t

Reform/defund/abolish the San Francisco Police Department: What we can do, what we can’t — and what we won’t
Demonstrators remember police shooting victims at a gathering for 22-year-old San Franciscan Sean Monterrosa, who was shot dead by Vallejo police on June 2. Photo by Annika Hom

Major alterations to the SFPD may require your vote — and that election can’t come before 2022


On May 24, the notion of diverting millions of dollars from the police department to the Black community would’ve been seen as earth-shattering and radical.

If it seems like a good idea now, it was certainly a good idea then. But no mainstream politician was suggesting it then. Well, they are now: On May 25, Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and the earth shattered in a different manner altogether. 

NASCAR banned confederate flags. Newspapers, belatedly, began capitalizing “Black.” 

And, now, anything short of a truly massive sum reallocated from the cops to the Black community will come off not as earth-shattering and radical but parsimonious and reactionary — and hardly satiate the throngs in the street  (and swamping the phone lines for Police Commission meetings) calling for the department to be “defunded.”  

One day after Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles said he’d cut the police department budget and divert funds to Black communities, San Francisco Mayor London Breed reached out to Supervisor Shamann Walton to do that here, too. Breed has offered no dollar totals whatsoever, but Walton last week told Mission Local he hoped for “at least $25 million.” 

Now, that’s a lot of money, especially if placed in two piles. But, in the context of the San Francisco Police Department’s hefty budget — and the nation’s political mood — $25 million comes off as a gesture. 

Nobody’s in the mood for gestures right now. Last week, after doing the math, Walton noted that the 10 to 15 percent citywide cuts the mayor has called for could amount to more than $100 million lopped off the nearly $700 million police budget. “So, for us to redirect resources to the Black community, we are looking at OVER $100 million of resources,” he wrote. 

When your humble narrator asked Walton if $25 million is no longer a sufficient number, he replied “no number is sufficient.”  

Oof. 

And the earth keeps shattering: When Breed in April tapped hard-nosed prosecutor Nancy Tung and former Deputy City Attorney Geoffrey Gordon-Creed for the Police Commission, they seemed like conventional and potentially acceptable picks. But by last week they were radioactive — Gordon-Creed dropped out when it was clear he no longer had the votes and Tung was shot down by a jarring 10-1 Board of Supervisors vote. 

One would think some introspection and strategic reassessment was due after 10 of 11 supervisors rejected the mayor’s nominee. Instead, Breed told KQED that the Board’s spurning of any candidate she deigned to nominate was a personal insult to her lived experience as a Black San Franciscan. 

We’ll see who she nominates next.  

Finally, on Thursday, Breed announced a bevy of police reforms that seemed groundbreaking — which they were back when the SFPD, in fact, embarked on a number of them long ago

“What we have is a statement — more promises — completely devoid of context that we’ve already been through this,” former ACLU attorney John Crew told Mission Local’s Julian Mark.  “And that’s extremely discouraging.” 

Take it easy, Champ. Why don’t you stop talking for a while?” 

Maybe sit the next couple plays out, you know what I mean? 

That’s an exchange from the film Anchorman. But, for all the world, it could’ve been used as an intervention with Police Officers Association President Tony Montoya last week as he reacted with online indignation regarding requests to “defund” the San Francisco Police Department. 

Policing is not the tool for all of our problems, yet our elected leaders send us in to solve every social problem the world throws at us. …” Montoya wrote in a POA-wide email. 

“So, we eagerly await the order to San Francisco police officers that we won’t respond to mental health calls so that the city can send social workers to resolve the situation; police officers won’t respond to quality of life calls, petty theft, vandalism or simple battery calls, instead, the city will send a counselor.  Police won’t need to respond to calls about homelessness so the city can send a homeless advocate to address the situation.”

But that’s … kind of the idea, right? You don’t need to have a gun and a badge and be an armed representative of sovereign state power to do jobs we should be hiring social workers for. Nurses at San Francisco General often encounter belligerent people, too — and rarely, if ever, shoot them.  

“The more the POA keeps talking,” says Walton, “the more beneficial it is for us.”

But the union wasn’t ready to take it easy. When Muni announced it would no longer transport police en masse to anti-police brutality rallies, the POA petulantly tweeted at the transit agency “lose our number” regarding fare enforcement or handling misbehaving passengers. “Shouldn’t be a @SFPD officer’s job anyway. @SFPDChief should stop using us for this.” 

Again, that’s … kind of the idea, right? Muni reports that it pays the SFPD some $6 million a year for these tasks. If the cops don’t want the gig, someone else — someone more appropriate — could do it and get all or part of this money. That’s one definition of what “defunding the police” means. 

“Defunding” is a malleable term, and when George Lakoff tells you your messaging stinks, it probably does. But, clearly, the pressure is being felt: On the heels of last week’s performance, the San Francisco Police Officers Association and other police unions announced backing for a reform plan to weed out racist officers. 

We’ll see where that goes. But, before that, Tony Montoya and the POA did a bang-up job of explaining why defunding the police could be a mainstream and desirable idea.   

Click graph for a larger version.

But what about going further than defunding? 

A veto-proof majority of Minneapolis legislators this month vowed to disband that city’s police force — and The Mill City’s elfin mayor was booed out of a protest and made to skulk home when he declined to commit to abolishing the police. 

No elected official is yet suggesting we take these steps in San Francisco. But, your humble narrator has learned, they are asking structural questions about it, behind closed doors. 

What would it take to radically alter the composition and function of the SFPD, let alone do away with it? Let’s answer that question with an anecdote: In 1984, the people of San Francisco were made to vote upon whether the police officers who rode Hondas deserved the same compensation as police officers who rode Harley-Davidsons. 

San Francisco is a charter city. Any alteration to the City Charter requires a vote. Adjusting cops’ pay rates based on Hondas or Harleys required an alteration to the City Charter. Ergo, we voted on it. 

So, as you’d imagine, a wholesale transformation of the police department would very likely require a vote, if not multiple votes. As would “disbanding” or “abolishing” the department outright, a la Minneapolis. 

In this city, the mandated existence of a police department is right there in the City Charter. And the Charter — for now — additionally mandates the city employ 1,971 sworn police officers. 

Altering these things is going to require a Charter Amendment. That’s going to require a vote — and the next election in which San Franciscans can vote on a new Charter Amendment will be in 2022. Mark your calendars. 

So that’s what we can’t do in short order. 

But Breed’s Thursday announcement indicated that we can do plenty. The catch is, will we? After all, we were already trying to do a lot of this stuff — and failing. 

Scene on Mission Street. Photo by Laura Wenus.

Montoya’s reaction to Breed’s Thursday rollout of police reforms was downright civil. And that was heartening — until you considered that this may be because she was asking the cops to do things they were already doing. 

It’s great that the mayor has moved to ban militarized weapons like tear gas, tanks, and bayonets more befitting a World War I battlefield than a major American city. But we had already done that. Thank God.  

But, to be fair, there’s quite a lot the department has already done — and it deserves some credit. 

In San Francisco, a years-long effort to reduce police use of force is moving in the right direction. Use of force is markedly down. A years-long effort to reduce police shootings is moving in the right direction — only one person was shot by police in 2019; in 2020, a cop fired at a suspect and missed him. Nobody died. 

But police use of force still falls, heavily and disproportionately, on people of color. And the same goes for police shootings. Addressing violence and shootings was good and necessary — but it wasn’t enough. Bias is the next frontier for this department. Everybody knows this. Redirecting money and responsibilities away from police won’t be enough if officers still use force disproportionately and with little recourse.  

What we have to do isn’t a mystery. It’s how

In the meantime, SFPD brass likely figures it can ride out the latest round of protests, and protesters from put-upon communities likely figure it’s folly to hope the SFPD can ever really change. 

These are mutually reinforcing positions. The result is stagnation and  perpetuation of the status quo.

It will take dedicated leadership to break the status quo. Whether we have that leadership in any vestige of city government remains an open question.  

Real change requires more than just a few high-profile firings or splashy announcements, but buy-in and concerted effort and accountability for the results from myriad parties — and the enactment of clear and workable systems and policies. And, in the end, you the voter may be called upon to ratify much of it. 

It’s a lot to ask. But, then, nothing less will do.

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15 Comments

  1. Adam Plantinga

    Nearly all police use of force occurs when the police are trying to make an arrest or detention. Lot of folks out there don’t want to be arrested so they resist. Nurses don’t have to use force against belligerent patients because they aren’t trying to arrest them. Neither will the counselors or social workers sent out into the field if SFPD is defunded.

    Reply
    • marcos

      Arrested and taken into custody for what?

      I don’t buy the proposition that police, exercising their wide and unchecked discretion, are adhering to any standards on who they arrest for what and who they don’t, that we should just trust each officer’s individual subjective judgement.

      That’s no way to run a paramilitary organization.

      Reply
    • sharon Burns

      Adam Plantinga says in his book 400 Things Cops Know, which I call a MANIFESTO on biased policing, that they are “ENFORCERS “ I thought the job was Serve & Protect. His book is said to be “a lot of fun” I didn’t find anything funny. I am an Army Veteran I had my problems but the way he portrays people in the “hood” is disgusting. I was sick and mad when I read it. Adam is a thug in uniform I don’t see why anyone allows him to have a gun. His book teaches new recruits how to profile. Did you know if you wear a Bomber Jacket you’re not abiding by the law. He calls the jackets with fur around the collar, “felony furs” and they should be stopped. As he stated he isn’t worried about the spectacled man with a Yale shirt. If you approach with an attitude you get attitude. Approach with respect and the world is beautiful. He approaches his job every day in the “hood” as he can stop anyway for any reason. I thought the job was to protect and serve not bother people minding their business. My mission is to show him and the ENFORCERS for what they are, racist, bigoted, bullies and thugs with a badge in uniform. As a veteran I’m disgusted. I’m just getting started. Someone needs to give them a job description. Stop whining about long hours we never slept and worked with pride 48 to 72 hours shifts or more. If you don’t like kids don’t be a teacher. If you are not good with people get out of customer service don’t blame us. PS our homes are a lot cleaner than yours I’d put money on it.

      Reply
  2. Mission MIKE

    “Policing is not the tool for all of our problems, yet our elected leaders send us in to solve every social problem the world throws at us. …”

    I live in the mission and when there’s a drunk guy on the sidewalk and someone calls 911, they send two cops in one cop car, an ambulance and a FIRE TRUCK.

    I’m all for the city providing someone to come deal with the situation that is not a cop.

    There’s $300 million a year spent towards homelessness issues, and I’m not sure where that is being spent, or if it’s doing any good at all. Can that money be spent on outreach calls like this? Then there would be even more to redirect towards other issues.

    The $300 million a year is what we should be inquiring about as well. How much do we pay these “nonprofit” organizations, that haven’t seemed to make a dent on the problem of homelessness? in the ten years I’ve been here in this city, it seems to get worse every year. We need some auditing, transparency, and accountability there.

    It’s got to be very taxing on the police to respond to these type of calls, and especially the firemen that watch the people in the ambulance ask if the guy is okay when he just drank three cans of beer & fell asleep on the middle of the sidewalk. I don’t think the police should be responsible for this kind of call.

    We are wasting a lot of money & not just with the police. Reduce the responsibility on police, and make the homelessness coalition step up & earn that $300 million.

    Reply
    • **

      Around half that $300 M goes to house the formerly homeless (you could argue about paying $1600/mth for an SRO room, but …), so there’ that. Then there’s your $30-50k/yr per bed for Nav Ctrs. Then there’s the ‘regular’ shelters … then theres’ the outreach, the HOT teams ($60k demanding $120k), the bureaucrats ($300,000 head), and the NPOs.

      I will agree that using other personnel for many of these calls would make sense. But that goes against the ’empire-building’ that bureaucrats live for. And those ’empires’ are built on jobs. So maybe a Charter Amendment to eliminate the 1971 Officer levels; and maybe increase the Police Specials (sworn, but privately funded) for ‘community policing’ would cut costs and improve services.

      But in the absence of Charter reform, perhaps blockade the GGB for two years oughta do it.

      Reply
  3. Danny Cello

    Excellent article Joe. The best one I have read on this subject.

    Reply
  4. h. brown

    Campers,

    We can do this.

    We’ve done it before in the City by the Bay.

    Disbanded the police force.

    For corruption.

    Replaced them, first, with Vigilantes …

    Then, with Patrol Specials who still exist.

    But, are quashed by the SFPD.

    There were hundreds of them.

    An ongoing SFPD campaign has their ranks down to around 50 last I looked.

    They harassed Patrol Special ‘chief’ on her deathbed for?

    ‘Jaywalking’

    Take one huge step.

    Pass a Charter Amendment making Police Chief an elected position.

    That’s former Sheriff Michael Hennessey’s idea.

    “If they didn’t fulfill their campaign promises, you can vote them out.”

    They wouldn’t be beholden to the Mayor or the SFPOA.

    I ran this by Gary Delagnes and Marty Halloran couple of years ago.

    They thought it was a good idea.

    Cause they think their candidate would win this election.

    And, once again …

    Why the hell did the Giants draft a catcher?

    Go Niners!

    Avalos in D-11 again!

    Nguyen in D-7!

    Fielder for State Senate!

    Gascon for LA DA!!

    Go Niners!

    h.

    Reply
  5. h. brown

    Campers,

    The Patrol Special chief was Jane Warner.

    h.

    Reply
  6. KWillets

    I’ve always wondered why the police commission isn’t elected. Political winds blow back and forth, and the mayor loves/hates the PD right on cue, but the police commission never changes. Wouldn’t reform mean having a commission that can change based on the popular vote?

    Reply
  7. Mark RAbine

    Montoya tells MUNI “to lose our number”. Does MUNI call the POA when it has a problem? Does Montoya think the POA is the SFPD? Over the past decade, the POA has blocked, or tried to block, or water down, every meaningful reform that has been proposed. If the cops throw out their troglodyte leadership, we will all be amazed at how much can be accomplished in fundamentally transforming the SFPD.

    Reply
  8. h. brown

    KWillets,

    “the police commission never changes”

    Au contraire, monsieur.

    The Commission does change with popular vote.

    When you choose a Mayor, you choose someone who appoints the majority of that Commission.

    Who then submit a list of 3 favorites to the Mayor for their choice.

    Thus, Mayor chooses not only the majority of the Commission but also, Police Chief.

    Until Gonzalez and the Class of 2000 took snips to Willy’s lowers, the Mayor appointed them all.

    We’re improving but City should bite the bullet and make top cop an elected position.

    Not under the thumb of the Mayor or influence of SFPOA.

    Go Niners!

    h.

    Reply
  9. Marcos

    Tanks? Haven’t seen any in San Francisco. Bayonets? Makes sense to use them if someone is attacking you, but again, haven’t seen that. Getting rid of tear gas? What non-lethal force does that leave you to deal with violent rioters? Nightsticks and harsh language? No, cops get suspended by weakling politicians for using harsh language. Nightsticks to stop rioters should be standard. Water cannons would be useful to break up rioting crowds and are reasonably safe.

    Reply
    • BLM

      they have fucking guns. they have body armor. they have rubber bullets and pepper spray and batons. why the fuck would they need Bayonets? a demonstration is not trench warfare. are the cops gonna stab civilians if they get too close? they gonna gas them with a chemical weapon banned under the Geneva protocol in 1925? just because people are exercising their right to assemble? fuck off you, bootlicker.

      Reply

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