As members of the Board of Supervisors and the police chief today discussed the SFPD budget during a hearing at the Budget Committee, it soon grew clear that our elected and appointed officials’ definition of “defunding” the police greatly differs from the hundreds of progressive activists queued up to speak at public comment. 

The supervisors held their third meeting on Wednesday to identify possible cuts to the police department’s roughly $700 million budget by August, some of which may later be redirected to Black communities per the mayor’s order. Hiring freezes, changes to airport police support, and increased civilianizing were a few areas that might facilitate the $23 million budget cut the mayor demanded earlier this year. 

“There is obviously heightened interest this year, given the moment we are in,” Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer said. “This moment has pushed the public conversation about police departments, police unions, the role of policing, and the desire to explore alternative models of public safety.”

But many of these topics did not align with the motives of activists from the Democratic Socialists of America, who organized a cavalcade of public commenters that as of 9: 30 p.m., was still going strong after 5 hours. They had been pushing for complete demilitarization and cuts to police field operations, language that did not explicitly find its way into suggested budget cut policies

“It feels like you’re not listening to us,” was a popular refrain these activists repeated. 

Police Chief Bill Scott also presented and explained the police budget spanning back 10 years, with most of the growth due to personnel costs. He emphasized the need to hire and retain officers. As of June 2020, the Police Department reported 2,290 sworn staff which is a 20 percent increase from a decade ago. Fifty-four more police are slated to be added by June 2021 as recruits graduate from training academies. 

While he confirmed that the SFPD was working to follow the mayor’s recommendation to cut the budget by at least 10 percent, Scott repeatedly stated that the police may not be able to continue reforms recommended by the Department of Justice in 2016 without sufficient money.  

“If there is a change in [policing in] the future, it can really only be done with proper infrastructure and oversight,” Scott said. “We all agree we want our communities to be safe.”

“Reform doesn’t work,” numerous callers said. “Defund. Disarm. Black Lives Matter.”

Read: Racial bias statistics remain disturbing

One policy suggestion that most parties at the meeting seemed to agree with was upping the number of civilianized police employees.  Civilianized workers essentially replace a beat officer position — at a fraction of the cost and without a badge, gun, or qualified immunity. 

Out of the 50 civilianized positions recommended by the Board of Supervisors over the last three years, the department has only hired 23; Scott attributed the backlog to the Department of Human Resources

While 20 more are being interviewed, Supervisor Hillary Ronen was not pleased with the progress. 

“It’s infuriating to me,” Ronen said. “This is one of the city’s top priority policies.” 

Click on chart for a full-sized version

The SFO police division was also put under the spotlight at Wednesday’s meeting — a division that scooped up $91 million last fiscal year. As of June 2020, 174 officers worked for the airport.

Menard’s analysis estimates that about $5 million a year could be saved if the airport relied on Sheriff’s deputies instead of San Francisco police officers, who are paid more. It is common for other airports like Oakland International Airport to use the Sheriff’s deputies. 

SFO Director Ivar Satero said that drawing money from the airport division would be detrimental to air travelers’ safety. Already some officers have been suspended from this division considering the decreased use of air travel during coronavirus. 

Fewer countered that she does not think it’s necessary for the airport to have such a sizable command staff, including a designated Deputy Chief. She noted that those officers could be better equipped to serve at neighborhood stations — and count toward the City Charter-mandated staffing minimum of 1,971 sworn officers.

Other programs proposed for elimination are units consisting of officers who exclusively use horses or motorcycles. 

Read: Taking too long: What an SFPD policy for Deaf people says about police reform

Supervisor Dean Preston also brought up the gang task force, which he said focuses on black and brown individuals more than others. This group receives $3.6 million. 

“The gang task force is past its time. We should be looking to reduce that,” Preston said. 

As Fewer ended the portion of the hearing involving elected and appointed officials, she asked the clerk how many public commenters were on the line. There were 130. 

Kaylah Williams, an organizer with the local branch Democratic Socialists of America, and the founder of the AfroSocialist and Socialists of Color Caucus, helped line up hours of public comment at a recent board meeting in which mayoral nominees for the Police Commission being vetted. Today, she had hoped to make a statement by breaking city records for the lengthiest public comment sessions. 

Other groups that shook the tree include the Coalition on Homelessness, the Budged Justice Coalition, Senior Disability Action, Causa Justa, No New Jails SF, NoJusticeNoPeace, the Do No Harm Coalition, Defund SFPD Now, and Coleman Advocates.

Read more about some impassioned public commenters here.

A statement may well be made, but breaking a record figures to be a challenge; due to the vast number of anticipated callers, Fewer stated that public speakers would be allowed only one minute to say their piece, not the customary two. 

The ongoing parade of speakers continues, with many urging the defunding of the police, reinvesting this money into community violence prevention and Black communities, increasing school funding, and relying on less police to respond to civilian issues. 

These are all ideas the supervisors and even Scott could get behind — but paying for it is a different matter.

“We can all say pretty things about San Francisco,” one of the many callers said. “But our values are in our budget.”

Update: The meeting finally wrapped up at 12:30 a.m., clocking in at 8 hours of public comment. 

Read more about our coverage of police reform here.

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