San Francisco is considering reviving its “patrol special” squad, a for-hire private security service enshrined in the city charter and with roots stretching back to the Gold Rush-era.
Patrol specials are non-sworn but armed officers appointed by the Police Commission, established in the city charter in 1857. They patrol specific beats or corridors in the city, and are paid by residents and business owners.
Today, as only one patrol special officer remains, one Police Commissioner is pushing to bring the force back.
The program “would likely have to be totally revamped,” said Commissioner Debra Walker as she introduced the subject before the Police Commission on Wednesday night. Over the years, she added, “there was a kind of a lack of oversight and coordination.”
A 2010 study of the program found that the patrol specials violated the rules and procedures set by the Police Commission and were a financial burden to the city, leading the Controller’s Office to recommend the dissolution of the force.
Patrol specials dress nearly identically to San Francisco police officers, and attend a 64-hour training with Peace Officer Standards and Training, a state program that trains law enforcement agencies, similar to police. But they do not have the same power or authority as police officers. They cannot make arrests or file police reports, nor are they subject to the same oversight and accountability measures.
The 2010 study found that patrol specials “overstep their authority,” posing a liability for the city.
Walker has ideas for bringing back the patrol specials as a new and improved pilot program to start, with better day-to-day coordination from the city’s Community Benefit District Alliance, body-worn cameras and improved training.
“I think it can really help,” Walker said in an interview with Mission Local. “Some of the neighborhoods were really successful.”
Commissioner Kevin Benedicto said that in order to consider reimplementing the patrol special program, he would have to see a comprehensive plan addressing the “serious concerns” outlined in the controller’s report.
Alan Byard, the city’s last remaining patrol special officer, briefly addressed the commission on Wednesday. He called the program “the original community policing.” He remembered a time when there were about 450 patrol specials supplementing more than 1,500 police officers, when he first took the job in the 1970s.
Byard, who today patrols sectors of the Marina District that pay for his services, appeared to be advocating for fewer restrictions to the program, suggesting that applications and the police academy training requirement were creating a “bottleneck” for approving new patrol specials.
“Apparently, SFPD doesn’t accept our backgrounds, and it’s taken over a year just to review one” application, Byard said.
Lt. Patrick McCormick, who addressed the commission on Wednesday, said that he had three applications ready to be scrutinized by the Police Commission.
Armed private security officers, who are not held to the same standard as the police, have recently faced calls for increased regulation, however.
Earlier this year, an armed security guard shot and killed Banko Brown, an unarmed transgender man, as Brown retreated from a Walgreens after being beaten and pinned to the ground following an alleged shoplifting attempt. The district attorney declined to criminally charge Brown’s killer, saying guard Michael Earl-Wayne Anthony acted in self-defense.
In response to the incident, District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston introduced legislation restricting when security guards may draw their firearms in protection of property.
Nonetheless, Byard and the prospect of patrol specials is apparently popular — the Police Commission received dozens of emails from Byard’s clients and other residents, calling for the body to save the program and approve pending applicants.