San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said he’s “open” to the defunding of his police department.
“I’m open to it,” Scott said Monday night during a panel hosted by the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club that also included Public Defender Mano Raju, District Attorney Chesa Boudin, and Sheriff Paul Miyamoto.
“We’re at a time in policing in this country where the whole world is speaking to us and we need to hear what’s being said,” Scott said. “And what’s being said is, we have to change the way we do policing in this country. And I think for me, I’m open to that.”
The chief, who oversees a department with a $674 million budget and a force of 2,300 officers, said if money is to be routed away from the police department, it needs to be done “thoughtfully.”
“I know very tough decisions are going to be made in a hurry,” he said, adding that “it’s going to take a lot of thought” to “put the pieces together to allow us to actually do this successfully.”
“Defunding the police” has become a common rallying cry as scores of people have taken to the streets in San Francisco and around the country in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Shamann Walton last Thursday said they would work to redirect funding away from the SFPD toward supporting “the African-American community.”
The mayor and the supervisor provided few specifics, but Walton told Mission Local he wanted “at least $25 million,” redirected from the police department “if we are really trying to change some of the systemic issues oppressing black people here in San Francisco.”
Scott added that he agreed a police response is not appropriate in all circumstances, such as mental health crises and quality-of-life calls like homelessness. This is something even the reactionary San Francisco Police Officers Association is on board with — though it ultimately stands against cuts to the department’s budget.
“To be blunt, there’s nothing we like about the proposal to cut the police budget,” wrote union president Tony Montoya in a letter to officers following Breed’s announcement, adding that the proposal would “divide the dedicated police officers from the communities we serve.”
The panel on Monday touched on many law enforcement issues, especially as they related to the LGBTQ+ community. But all San Francisco’s so-called “justice partners” weighed in on — and seemed open to — reducing the role of policing in society.
DA Boudin agreed with Scott, saying that sending armed police officers to certain situations is not the best use of resources and may not result in the best outcomes.
“We know that when law enforcement responds to mental health crises, there’s a risk of people getting hurt,” Boudin said. “People who are mentally ill or in crisis often don’t respond to law enforcement orders the way that you or I might — and that leads to an increased chance of escalation, use of force.”
He cited a system called “Cahoots” in Eugene, Oregon, in which 911 dispatchers can decide to deploy clinicians — not police — for situations calling for crisis intervention. “That’s a model that is cost-effective and has proven to work in terms of minimizing the distraction that police officers face from doing their core function … and also minimizing the risk of violence.”
Scott agreed. He said that the 911 system is geared perhaps too heavily toward first responders like police and firefighters. “I don’t know right now most cities you can call and get a mental health worker 24 hours a day to respond where a police officer wouldn’t have to,” he said.
Sheriff Miyamoto also said he supports divestment from law enforcement — or, at least, a reduced role in the services it provides. “So when you hear that word, ‘defunding,’ you would expect us not to support it — but in reality, we understand … San Francisco and our community has been trying to do these things for a number of years,” he said.
Indeed, most recently, the San Francisco Police Commission urged Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors to create a new system for homelessness that led with health professionals instead of police.
Public Defender Mano Raju expanded on the idea of reducing law enforcement’s role, imagining a system where there are many different kinds of professionals to respond to calls — saying some situations are better suited for youth development experts, or a public health practitioner, or a mental health professional, or a conflict mediator.
“I do think that there is a profound national conversation we’re having right now,” he said. “And I don’t purport to know all the answers, but I think the space is being opened up for us to figure out those answers — I think it’s incumbent upon us to begin doing that.”
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