How We Can Meet Our Police Staffing Challenge

London Breed
9 min readMar 21, 2023

Public safety is an issue I hear about from our residents and small businesses every day. We have implemented a number of initiatives to address our most significant challenges:

As part of sustaining this kind of work, we are relying on police overtime to increase the number of officers responding to calls and serving in targeted operations. That is why we had put forward an emergency funding proposal before the Board of Supervisors — to keep police officers we have working overtime to cover our basic safety needs.

Mayor Breed congratulates officers at San Francisco Police Department’s 2022 Promotion Ceremony.

However, this reliance on overtime and the push to keep it funded is happening in the context of a much larger issue — and that is the question of our long-term police staffing shortage.

In 2020, voters approved a Charter Amendment requiring the City to set recommended police staffing levels based on an independent analysis. Currently that analysis shows we are significantly below that recommended level — more than 540 officers below where we are supposed to be.

This is a national issue with fewer people entering or remaining in the law enforcement profession than in recent years. This means departments all over are struggling to cover for attrition as officers retire or leave law enforcement for other professions.

There is no one answer to what we need to do. In fact, we have been working on a series of initiatives to address our police staffing shortage and to improve how we respond to needs that have traditionally relied on a police response but could be better served in different ways.

To address our police staffing shortage, we are focusing on four specific areas:

  • Recruitment: Bringing new officers in with a focus on creating a more diverse and professionalized workforce.
  • Retention: Keeping the officers we have trained so we don’t lose their expertise to other jurisdictions
  • Civilianization: Adding more non-sworn employees to free up officers to do the work they are uniquely needed and trained to do.
  • Alternatives: Diverting certain calls or responsibilities to non-law enforcement entities to provide a more appropriate, effective response and to free up officers to other work.

We have been working on these four strategies and we are expanding initiatives under each of them. Public safety is a complex issue that requires multiple strategies but one basic outcome — that people feel safer and more welcomed whether they live here, work here, or are visiting. Statistics matter for evaluating our work, but the sense of how people feel is critical.

Here is some more detail on the strategies we are pursuing:

Recruitment

The Police Department is making several improvements in its work to bolster recruitment and fill Academy classes. These changes include:

  • Increasing entry level pay: The new proposed contact agreement for our police officers will make SFPD the highest entry salary in the Bay Area for larger cities, which will help attract new recruits. This contract is currently pending before the Board of Supervisors.
  • Adding more resources dedicated to recruitment: SFPD has expanded its recruitment team and is hiring a recruitment firm to identify recruits and develop new strategies.
  • Conducting multiple outreach strategies: SFPD is recruiting at local and national career fairs, military bases, government, public safety, and law enforcement-specific recruiting events; has organized a large-scale recruitment summit; is participating in a national Women-Center recruitment campaign to increase female applicants; and implementing a robust and expansive multi-channel advertisement campaign across digital, TV, radio, print, and social media, as well as launch a new website Joinsfpd.com.
  • Improving the application process: SFPD has improved applicant standards to ensure qualified people are eligible to join, is providing more direct support for applicants by providing test preparation resources and mentorship to get them through the door, and conducting one day testing events to cut the hiring process by three months.
  • Hosting Academy Classes as applicants become available: Rather than waiting for a full class of 50+ candidates, SFPD is hiring recruits at regular intervals and putting forward smaller, more frequent academy classes so recruits are not lost to other law enforcement agencies who may be able to hire them sooner.

This increased focus is starting to show some initial results. Since November 2022, SFPD received 909 applications to join the department. 400 of those applications were submitted in 2023 alone. During that period last year, the number of applications was 250. But the key is if we can continue to increase applicants, and then actually get them into, and successfully graduate from our Academy classes.

This focus on recruiting new officers has to be consistent. Our staffing crisis is not just a product of a national staffing crisis for law enforcement alone; every year we do not approve and fill Academy classes that I propose in my budget, we dig a deeper hole for the department when it comes to the number of officers that it has.

2022 San Francisco Police Department Promotion Ceremony.

Retention

Keeping our trained police officers from leaving the force is an essential strategy as we work to rebuild our police force. We have invested time and resources into training these officers, and they know this City, the community and the Department. We should be doing everything we can to avoid losing officers to transfers to other departments or to retirement.

In our last budget, we funded retention bonuses when officers reached their fifth and fifteenth year on the force, key years where data showed the City was losing officers. These bonuses have indicated some initial success — the Department of Human Resources had projected the loss of 50 officers to attrition due to retirement last fiscal year, but that number came in at only 30.

We are increasing retention incentives in the new proposed contract agreement with our police officers that is waiting for Board of Supervisors approval. The contract three-year contract includes retention incentives at 5, 7, and 8 years, to keep trained officers working in San Francisco.

Civilianization

The Police Department relies on civilian positions to do work that trained police officers are not required to do. This frees up officers to focus on addressing crime, conducting community policing, and responding to calls for service.

SFPD is in the process of implementing my plan to hire additional Police Services Aides (PSAs), which are civilian positions that provide supportive duties to police officers, but do not hold law enforcement powers such as carrying a firearm. PSAs assist sworn officers and citizens by assisting with administrative duties and writing and filing reports on low-priority incidents that have already happened such as cold theft, stolen property, or vandalism cases. Having additional PSAs will allow SFPD to spend more time with victims of crime, without sworn or armed officers, and allow for faster reporting of crimes, which makes for better community satisfaction.

There are currently around 200 PSAs, and the plan is to increase that amount significantly based on a deployment plan that is being developed.

Police Chief Scott Swearing in Police Service Aides (PSA).

Deploying Alternatives for Police Response

San Francisco has undergone significant work to create alternatives to policing that both better serve the public by providing an appropriate and effective response to specific needs, but also allow our police officers to focus on responding to public safety needs. For too long, we have relied on our police department to be the default responder to the vast majority of calls for service, because they work around the clock and can respond to incidents swiftly. Diverting non-public safety calls away from SFPD allows San Franciscans to receive help and information for situations that don’t necessarily need an officer to resolve and lets police officers focus on the criminal incidents.

Our Street Crisis Response Teams (SCRT) are a non-law enforcement response to emergency calls for service regarding behavioral health issues. They meet people during an emergency and clinicians follow-up with connections to care. The goal is simple: to meet people in crisis, get them off the streets, and assist them as they find stability in shelter, housing, and treatment programs; all without needing SFPD officers. The teams work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week across our City to help people on our streets experiencing behavioral health crisis, overdose, and other urgent issues impacting their wellbeing.

Since the launch in late November 2020, SCRT has answered almost 15,000 calls and continue to take hundreds of calls each month, many of which would have gone to police previously. They are able to spend the time to connect people to care and treatment and ensure there is a follow up connection with the Office of Coordinated Care for care and treatment services to prevent a revolving door of crisis and a return to the street.

Street Crisis Response Team.

We aren’t stopping this work to find new ways to reduce the deployment of armed police officers to non-public safety calls for service. We are constantly working with SFPD command staff and with leadership in multiple departments to discuss, plan, and implement new, non-police responses to a variety of calls.

Additionally, our Ambassador programs provide a non-law enforcement component to the overall goal of making our City welcoming and safe. There is a mix of Mid-Market/Tenderloin Safety Ambassadors (from Urban Alchemy), orange-jacketed SF Welcome Ambassadors, BART service attendants, and SFPD Safety Ambassadors (who are retired officers). All of these Ambassadors engage with compassion and respect to support people in need, address safety issues, and help improve cleanliness. They are trained to consistently engage with members of the public and are often able to interrupt anti-social behavior, contain mental health episodes, reverse overdose events, and connect individuals in need to appropriate service personnel like EMTs, outreach workers for unhoused populations, or the police.

SFPD Retired Safety ambassadors in particular can rely on their prior training, years of experience as sworn police officers, and familiarity with SFPD procedures and sworn personnel. This allows them to conduct high visibility patrols in pedestrian-dense neighborhoods and destinations throughout San Francisco and to swiftly make the connections needed between potential witnesses and crime victims to sworn members of SFPD when a crime has been committed. With the approval of our police funding supplemental, another 25 of these retired officers will be active in our neighborhoods in just a few weeks.

Retired San Francisco Police Department Community Ambassadors.

Staffing as Part of Larger Public Safety Response

We will continue to build on these core areas of focus in our work to address our police staffing shortage. There is no one answer — it will require a sustained focus in each of these areas over many years to do the work we need to do to create a more resilient public safety response in this City. And all of this work will continue alongside our comprehensive work to implement criminal justice reforms, strengthen support services for victims, and do the intentional work of preventing as much violence and crime in the first place.

Ensuring that there is safety in our city is possible. I want to be very clear about the role that police have in that work: police officers are not the only solution or only tool that we have to invest in to have safety in our city, but they are a very important part of this work. Crime has to be addressed when it happens with certainty of consequences, whether that means a police response or an alternative.

But crime also has to be prevented as much as possible through community building — good jobs, stable housing, access to education and opportunities, medical care when we need it. These are also necessary and important priorities that I will continue to pursue and invest in. This is how we will create a safer and more just San Francisco.

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