The police chief, president of the police union, and the president of the Black officers association spoke out Wednesday about low morale within the department, arguing that internal and external factors are contributing to resignations and poor performance.
In her presentation before the Police Commission, Police Officers Association president Lt. Tracy McCray said the union conducted a poll in recent weeks, asking officers whether they planned to leave the department within the next year or move to another law enforcement agency.
“Over 54 percent said that they were planning to leave,” McCray said. “That’s a very daunting number, because that tells me roughly 400 people could leave this department.”
Chief Bill Scott pointed to the morale issue as a driving factor in increasing resignations and retirements: In his presentation, he shared results of a survey of 194 police departments between April, 2020, and April, 2021, showing resignations were up by 18 percent and retirements by 45 percent.
“[Under]staffing leads to burnout, leads to morale issues, leads to increased overtime usage and things like that,” Scott said. “Less sleep, exhaustion and all those things impact morale.”
Retirements are also high, as many officers reach their 30-year point and max out their pensions, as the SFPD has pointed out in the past.
In April, SFPD project manager Celeste Berg said the trend in resignations was observed nationally, as “everyone that was hired in the mid-’90s is reaching retirement age. And so law-enforcement agencies across the country are experiencing a sort of ‘aging out’ of their workforce.”
Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone said that hiring and retention should be a focus of the department, separate from any morale issue.
“I think there is a perception sometimes that solving the morale question will also solve the hiring and retention problem,” Carter-Oberstone said. “I do think we need to be a little bit careful about that, just because we are in an economic environment where it’s hard for everyone to hire, around all sectors.”
Officers for Justice president Yulanda Williams, an acting captain, also presented before the commission on Wednesday. She said nepotism and cronyism were launching less-skilled members to command-level positions, and discouraging other officers, particularly ones of color.
“The last round of promotions in the command staff failed to include a Black man or woman.” Williams said, adding that only one Black member had been promoted to the command staff within the past five years.
SFPD data also shows that Black officers may not be graduating from the police academy at the rate they are entering. In 2020, while 15 percent of the academy recruits were Black, only five percent of the graduating class was.
Not only are minorities not being hired or promoted, Williams said, but even those eligible to take promotional exams aren’t compelled to do so. She added that discipline and oversight may be administered inconsistently or unfairly within the SFPD. Scott’s findings from officer surveys affirmed this sentiment.
“We have been systematically disrespected far too long by this department,” Williams said.
Scott also acknowledged the morale issue isn’t a new one; he said one Stanford survey made this finding two years ago with members of the police force.
In addition to internal issues like staffing, need for resources, and tensions between the command staff and line officers, Scott outlined several external factors that contribute to low morale. These included “one-sided, biased” reporting by the media, “unfair prosecutions” of officers, and “vitriolic sociopolitical” perceptions of policing.
Scott also said officers complained of unclear policies and unrealistic expectations; the Police Commission is responsible for setting department policy.
Beyond wellness and behavioral health efforts by the department, Scott suggested that newer patrol cars and renovated buildings could help officers know that the SFPD cares about them.
When it came to public perceptions of policing, however, Carter-Oberstone said that in order to rebuild trust with the community, “the department has to demonstrate that it’s learned from these issues, and that it’s going to do better.”
The SFPD’s arrest rate is typically low — 8.1 percent in 2021 — and clearances (rates of charging suspects) dropped further in many categories this year. Seven percent of rapes, six percent of motor vehicle thefts, and fewer than 10 percent of burglaries have been cleared in 2022.
And the department’s track record in arresting and using force against people of color still points to extreme racial bias: Black people are 12 times as likely to have force used on them, and 10 times as likely to be searched as whites.
Such a direct commitment to rebuilding trust wasn’t quite verbalized by the presenters.
“Yes, we’ve had scandals, no one’s running away from that. But we’ve also lost very young, capable officers who were killed in the line of duty. So the risk and the rewards of this profession, unfortunately, these things happen,” McCray said at the start of her presentation.
The last SFPD officer killed in the line of duty, according to the POA, was Bryan Tuvera in 2006.
Scott said more accountability and “civil conversations” on both sides would help build the trust.