The San Francisco Police Department’s crime clearance rates have dropped to its lowest level in a decade, spurring much lamentation at Wednesday night’s Police Commission meeting.
A February letter of inquiry from District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen to Police Chief Bill Scott was extensively discussed at the meeting. That letter expressed concerns that a “political rift” between the SFPD and the DA’s office was “causing a deliberate work stoppage” by the police.
Explanations from the chief of police and his colleague defending the department didn’t appear to satisfy the three Board of Supervisors-appointed commissioners — the only ones who spoke during Wednesday evening’s agenda item. The three mayoral appointees on the commission sat silent.
Only 8.1 percent of reported crimes in 2021 led to an arrest. That is “the lowest it’s been in the past 10 years,” said acting president Cindy Elias, reading off the SFPD’s low clearance rates for various crimes as compared to national averages. The current rate, she said, is unacceptable.
Ronen’s letter noted reports in the media, as well as instances when she and her staff had personally witnessed members of the SFPD tell constituents that there is no point in investigating crimes or arresting perpetrators “because the District Attorney will not prosecute,” a claim she called “patently false.”
Data shows that DA Chesa Boudin’s charging rates are actually higher than those of previous DAs.
“It is absolutely unacceptable for police officers to just stop doing their jobs because they don’t like the way another department is doing its job,” Ronen wrote. “It is time to stop using the district attorney as a scapegoat for broken morale in your department and start taking responsibility to solve the difficult problems in our City under your jurisdiction.”
Neither the commissioners nor Scott explicitly brought the district attorney into Wednesday’s conversation, but Scott said he didn’t believe officers refusing to do their jobs was a big enough issue to have an impact on the department’s clearance rates.
“I don’t think there is this sweeping neglect of duty issue that’s going to swing an arrest rate from 8 percent to 50 percent,” Scott said. “I don’t think it’s pervasive to that degree.”
Instead, he blamed alternatives to incarceration, efforts to reduce jail populations, legal shifts to decriminalize certain activities, and staffing shortages. Since most of the initiatives Scott mentioned require an arrest and evidence to get to the next step, alternatives and jail, commissioners were unconvinced.
Commissioner Jesús Gabriel Yáñez called the low rates “a glaring, glaring gap,” and said that Scott wasn’t presenting any true solutions or ideas to address the problem.
Elias pointed out that considering all the reports of officers neglecting their duties, very few of those came before the commission for disciplinary hearings. “So, how are we changing the culture if there’s no discipline for these kinds of complaints?” she asked.
And, like Ronen, Elias rejected the understaffing excuse. Since 2016, prior to the department’s staffing shortages, Elias noted that the SFPD’s clearance rate has been “well below the national average.”
“While staffing is important and we understand it, there still is another problem or underlying reason as to why this is happening,” Elias said. “And I guess my question is, what is the department doing to find out what that is?”
One issue is the high level of property crime here in San Francisco, said the acting deputy chief of investigations, Raj Vaswani. Another reason, he proffered, is organized and smart repeat offenders.
Scott, however, acknowledged that the police have no intention of solving many property crimes, which the force sees as mostly unsolvable. “Property crime incidents with little to no suspect information or physical evidence (i.e., vehicle break-ins) continue to be considered a lower priority in order to have available staff to respond to calls for service,” Scott wrote in his response letter to Ronen.
Scott told the commission yesterday that for the “vast majority” of car break-ins, for example, “there is absolutely no follow-up done — or anything to follow up on.”
Even commissioner John Hamasaki, a notoriously harsh critic of the police department, agreed with this reality on Wednesday, his final commission meeting.
“I’ve defended the department many times on these property crime things because, it’s like, you can’t investigate a pile of broken glass outside … there’s only so much you can do.” But Hamasaki also questioned the quality of investigations in San Francisco, which he said simply doesn’t always stack up against other jurisdictions.
Commissioners agreed that better tracking and auditing of calls for service and ensuing police investigations — or lack thereof — would be a place to start.
Correction: This article was updated to reflect that there are three mayoral appointees currently on the police commission.