A few dozen San Francisco police and firefighters are commuting from hundreds or thousands of miles away, taking flights from as far away as Texas or the East Coast, raising questions about their commitment to San Francisco and their ability to serve the city in case of an emergency.
City records show that at least 30 police department employees live outside of California, including 16 sworn officers. The same number of sworn firefighters, 16, live outside of the state.
Technically, the fire and police departments have no residency requirement mandating employees live within the city or region. The San Francisco Fire Department’s union contract, however, has an “emergency recall” clause requiring employees to “respond” within four hours. But the meaning of this clause is up for interpretation.
“It’s nothing enforceable,” said a longtime firefighter who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I do think it’s ridiculous, people living out of state and that far away.”
The vast majority of the staff at both the police and fire departments do still live in the Bay Area: More than 95 percent of police department employees, and about 85 percent of the fire department.
Only about 21.5 percent of sworn police live in San Francisco, according to the Department of Human Resources’ data — the lowest rate of any city department. In fact, about 25 percent of San Francisco’s police brass lives in San Mateo County, more than in San Francisco itself.
Retired police sergeant Dean Marcic referred to colleagues who live out of state as “super-commuters” — employees who return to San Francisco every few weeks for work but have their home, spouses and children elsewhere.
A flight to San Francisco from Honolulu, where one firefighter lives, takes five hours. Another firefighter lives in Waxhaw, North Carolina, nearly an hour outside of Charlotte. Excluding the time to get to the Charlotte airport, the flight time to San Francisco is more than five hours.
Still another lives in College Grove, Tennessee; a flight from the nearest airport, in Nashville, to San Francisco is also nearly five hours long.
The motivation for living outside the city can range: Better schools and weather, lower cost of living, proximity to family. Another reason, said retired police sergeant Carl Tennenbaum, may be that police officers want to avoid running into people they once arrested on their days off.
“Cops don’t wanna live in the city, because they don’t want some bad guy they arrested to come looking for them,” he said. “I ran into people who I arrested when I was off duty, and it was never a problem because I wasn’t a jerk.”
The fire department said that the four-hour response requirement actually only mandates that employees answer a call within four hours.
“The SFFD staff has four hours to return a call confirming receipt of a recall notification, and two days to respond back to the city,” said Captain Jonathan Baxter in an email.
Dozens of sworn police officers and firefighters live outside California
In the police, officers, lieutenants,
sergeants, and even a commander
live out of state.
Dozens of sworn police officers
and firefighters live outside CA
In the police, officers,
and even a commander live out of state.
Map by Will Jarrett. Data from the Department of Human Resources.
Super-commuters at the San Francisco Police Department
The police department has no such requirements, and at least 30 employees of the SFPD live outside of California. Of those 30, some 16 are sworn officers living in other states, such as Idaho, Texas, and Alabama, including at least one commander, who can earn between $340,000 and $380,000 in salary. Others live in the far reaches of the state, as far as San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles counties.
How often these employees commute to San Francisco is unclear.
“My understanding is that there used to be a policy requiring you to live in San Francisco to be hired, which was extended to the nine Bay Area counties as hiring became more difficult,” wrote police union spokesperson Dustin Saggau in an email. “Now, there is no requirement for residency/proximity, because of the extreme hiring challenges.”
Many cities around the country have done away with strict residency requirements, and large numbers of employees commute from out of town.
The Police Department has, for several years, claimed severe staffing shortages, and recruitment efforts have fallen short of late. The SFPD had 1514 sworn officers in March, according to data from the department — 358 fewer than it had in 2017, when the ranks began to decline.
A resolution sponsored by five city supervisors last month stated that the department hired no more than 21 new officers per year in the last two years, and that 478 of 1,537 — nearly a third — of sworn SFPD officers are currently eligible for retirement.
Disaster response, community policing in question
All city employees are considered “disaster service workers” and may be asked to respond in emergency situations, including natural disasters and human-caused emergencies that result in disaster or “extreme peril.” Thousands of city employees were called on to serve the city during the Covid-19 pandemic and after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Living in distant counties of the state or across state lines can also impact the culture of the departments.
“Socially, even, it’s a lot better to hire Bay Area people,” said the longtime firefighter, referencing Trump supporters from other parts of California and remembering dramatic hearings over officers refusing to heed Covid-19 vaccine requirements. “A small number live out of state, but we do have too many who live two and three hours away, which is too far.”
That SFPD members can live hours away or across state lines casts doubt on the department’s purported commitment to “community policing” — the philosophy that collaboration with a community can create better policing outcomes. The Police Department’s approach to community policing “requires that the police have an understanding of the traditions, culture and history of the neighborhoods in which they serve.”
Retired police veteran Tennenbaum said he felt a divide between commuter colleagues and those who grew up in and lived in the city.
“I always got the sense that a lot of the people who were commuting from the suburbs, they weren’t that invested in the outcomes of what their policing was doing,” Tennenbaum said. He called it “common sense” that a police officer living in Novato, which is 70 percent white, and working in Bayview Hunters Point would be “disconnected” from that community.
Eighty-eight sworn police officers live in Novato, about 45 minutes away.
Police Commissioner Jesus Gabriel Yáñez was surprised to learn that police all the way up to the commander level have permanent addresses outside of California. Having officers who grew up in the city and have “lifetime experience” managing different street dynamics in San Francisco’s distinct communities, he said, is “invaluable.”
“It just boggles the mind to think that anybody can work from out of state,” Yáñez said. “I think we need to, at some point, have a sunset on that recruitment strategy.”
“I wouldn’t do it, myself,” said Marcic, the retired police sergeant, who works part-time for the SFPD. But, he said, “everybody’s got their own reasoning behind it.”