Dr. Grant Colfax, the director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, today sent an email to employees stating that he is looking to “significantly change our security model.” 

That might mean eventually dropping San Francisco Sheriff’s Office deputies, who have worked at city hospitals for decades. 

Colfax’s letter states that, of 111 emergency room use-of-force incidents in the just-concluded fiscal year, 70 percent of them were directed at Black people. Black people, however, accounted for only 24 percent of ER visitors.  

“It’s time for us to seriously review our current relationship with SFSD with the goal of a more holistic and equitable approach to security and safety,” Colfax wrote in the letter obtained by Mission Local. “These changes could include using alternatives to SFSD personnel and expanding the use of clinically trained staff for rounding, de-escalation and patient assistance services at our two hospitals.”

The move comes on the heels of dueling petitions authored by three nurses this month, according to psychiatric nurse and SEIU 1021 Vice President of organizing Jennifer Esteen. Two petitions called for the removal of deputies from hospital facilities, and a third, formed in response, asked to keep them. The former amassed between 1,000 to 1,500 signatures according to a nurse supporting the movement, and the latter amassed 2,000 signatures in its first 24 hours. 

Colfax’s letter and the opposing petitions underscore how city departments are attempting to redefine their relationships with law enforcement in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. In San Francisco, activist groups have steadily highlighted the disproportionate use-of-force against Blacks and Latinos, whether it be in the streets, in the classroom or, as Colfax stated, in the hospital. 

Read more about our coverage of police accountability or the move to remove school resource officers from San Francisco public schools.

The Sheriff’s Department said in a statement that “there are no plans to cancel our contract” and that deputies remain committed to keeping everyone safe at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, while listening to the community.

The Sheriff’s Office continues to work with DPH leadership in responding to concerns of some ZFGH campus staff regarding the law enforcement presence on campus,” the statement said. 

Colfax’s letter suggested that the Department of Public Health’s security director and other teams will come up with a proposal that changes the sheriffs’ role. Colfax could not immediately be reached for comment. 

But Esteen said she felt skeptical about Colfax’s letter, since the hospital already skimps out on its regular de-escalation training. 

“If Grant is saying we rely on training mechanisms, that’s the part that also gives me cause for pause,” she said. Esteen said she wants a thoughtful, comprehensive solution; for her, while she supports removing sheriffs, replacing them with security guards would cause even more damage. 

Christa Duran, a registered nurse in the emergency department at Zuckerberg San Francisco General, received the letter this afternoon after de-escalating a situation with a tall man, and felt extremely emotional after reading it.

“I feel afraid for my life. I feel so upset,” she said.

Duran said that she’s open to addressing ways that the sheriffs can improve, including cultural competency trainings. She feels, however, that sheriffs have helped her numerous times, and referred to an October incident when a patient dragged a nurse by the hair. The nurse was freed by a sheriff, Duran claimed. Similar situations where deputies assisted fearful nurses were outlined in the aforementioned petition asking to keep deputies. 

Duran further alleged that the hospital missed violence prevention training for three and a half years, despite staff being told they’d receive it each year.

“You can imagine how few of our staff has that training,” Duran said. “The ER is not safe. Why would they remove our security?” 

Ken Lomba, the president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association union, warned that eliminating sheriffs could just act as a means for the Health Department to use security guards instead. It could be a cheaper and more tempting option for the department, but may not result in the de-escalation processes that  defund-the-police advocates are calling for. 

“You could see an increase in calls to the police, and they will be arriving onto a scene they know nothing about and have to react to that,” Lomba said. 

He received no notification from the Health Department about Colfax’s announcement, finding out instead from a Mission Local reporter. 

Lomba estimated that private security guards, without police powers, might cost half as much as keeping deputies in the hospitals. He wondered if this potential savings was the real driver for today’s announcement. This is an idea that Esteen also finds plausible since the hospital, short-staffed before the pandemic, now faces a budget crisis. 

Colfax’s letter spells out little, possibly to navigate a complex situation and assuage rising emotions from a divided staff. It has yet to be seen what will come.

“I’m curious,” Esteen said. “There’s union support on both sides.”

This story has been updated on August 11, 2020 to include a link to a petition supporting the removal of sheriffs and updating the number of petitions supporting that. 

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