Public Safety Priorities For A Safer San Francisco

I’m proud to have appointed our new District Attorney Brooke Jenkins. This was a challenging decision, but it was one that I made with a lot of input from people who live in and care about this City.

For the last several weeks, I’ve met with community groups, business owners, attorneys, and judges to understand what they wanted in their District Attorney’s Office. These were a wide range of groups from neighborhoods all over the city, and included people whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system.

During those meetings, and in conversations with others, I heard over and over that San Franciscans want both accountability and reform. They want change. And they want to feel safer.

The drug dealing we are seeing on the streets of the Tenderloin demands change. The rampant break-ins and the retail theft demand change. The violence and hate crimes targeting our Asian-American residents demand change. The flagrant criminal behavior we see committed by repeat offenders demands change.

We are a city of compassion and second chances, but we must draw the line with those who choose violence and a life of crime.

Brooke Jenkins sworn in as San Francisco’s new District Attorney by Judge Samuel Feng in the North Light Court of City Hall

I’m confident that Brooke Jenkins will be a District Attorney that will hold those who commit crimes accountable, while also supporting smart and important reforms to our criminal justice system. During her time in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, she prosecuted hate crimes, sexual assaults, and homicides. She fought for victims. But she has also had family members on both sides of the courtroom. Her family has seen and felt the impacts of police violence. When you’re talking about someone who is going to making life-changing decisions, that matters. The inequity in the criminal justice system is not theoretical to her — it is part of her lived experience.

Brook put her career on the line to fight for the future of San Francisco, and she will lead the District Attorney’s Office with that conviction. I know she will fight for the people who live and work in San Francisco.

We have a lot of work to do around public safety, and the appointment of the new District Attorney is just part of that work, albeit a critically important part. We also need to address our police staffing shortage; advance critical safety policies; continue to support alternatives to policing measures; and implement Police Reform initiatives.

Police Staffing: Filling Vacant Positions

Our police department has seen staffing significantly decline in the last few years. The pandemic exacerbated this to the point where we are now in a major staffing crisis.

In my budget, I funded a Police Hiring Plan to fill 200 vacant budgeted police positions through additional academy classes over the next two years, increasing base starting salaries to strengthen recruitment, and offering retention bonuses to keep officers in the Department. The Board of Supervisors has come to agreement on this plan, and we are moving it forward.

We have to address understaffing if we want more police officers walking the beat in our neighborhoods, responding to 911 calls, and stopping the break-ins, drug dealing, and other crimes impacting our residents and small businesses. We need them to build on the work they are doing. For example, in just the past couple of weeks our police officers have:

These are just a few examples of the difference our officers are making in our communities, but we know that we still have a lot of work to do to ensure that everyone feels safe in our city. Filling our vacant positions is just a first step in getting our Police Department back to where it was pre-pandemic, but it’s a critical step.

Reforms: Increasing Accountability and Transparency

As we build back our police staffing, we also have to aggressively continue to implement police reforms. Our commitment to criminal justice reform remains strong, despite what some may claim.

For the last several years, San Francisco’s Police Department (SFPD) has undergone a comprehensive police reform initiative, first under the guidance of the Obama administration’s Department of Justice, and later under the California Department of Justice. As of April of this year, SFPD has achieved substantial compliance in 245 of the 272 these recommendations.

These reforms include:

With these reforms we’ve seen use of force rates go down and Academy classes become more diverse. This is good progress, but we still have more work to do. That’s why my budget also adds new civilian staff positions over the next two years to continue reform work and sufficiently support Public Records Act requests for improved transparency.

Smarter on Crime: Using Technology to Deploy Public Safety Resources and Gather Critical Evidence

We also need to make sure our police officers have the proper tools to protect public safety responsibly. The police right now are barred from accessing or monitoring live video unless there are “exigent circumstances”, which are defined as events that involve an imminent danger of serious physical injury or death. If this high standard is not met, the Police can’t use live video feed, leaving our neighborhoods and retailers vulnerable

The chaos we saw last November in Union Square, the organized drug dealing we see in the Tenderloin and South of Market areas on a daily basis, the robberies that have plagued neighborhood commercial corridors in Chinatown, Hayes Valley, the Marina and Sunset — these are just a few examples where live video could provide a significant tool for our police to be able to conduct investigations and make arrests.

We want the police and the District Attorney’s office to be able to solve crimes and hold the persons accountable who are responsible for the criminal activity that make us all feel less safe. Smart use of technology can help prosecutors ensure that they are prosecuting the right people and making the right calls when it comes to the charges to pursue. Video can also be used to prevent mistakes — I’ve known people who were falsely accused and falsely prosecuted and video footage can help make sure that those life-changing and devastating consequences don’t happen.

These are the reasons why I authored this legislation. It will authorize police to use non-City cameras and camera networks to temporarily live monitor activity during significant events with public safety concerns, investigations relating to active misdemeanor and felony violations, and investigations into officer misconduct. Strong guardrails against misuse of technology and video footage are also in this law to protect our civil liberties because we know that technology can be misused. I want to thank Supervisor Peskin for his partnership and leadership. This legislation is currently pending at the Board of Supervisors, and we are working to get it passed with a first hearing this Monday.

Illegal Vending: New Law and Enforcement Funding

Illegal street vending has posed a significant challenge to our city and our small businesses for quite some time now, and it has only gotten worse since the beginning of the pandemic. Areas like UN Plaza and around 24th and Mission have recently been overrun with vendors selling stolen goods or setting up in a way that blocks safe passage for sidewalk users, especially seniors and people with disabilities, and blocking access to small businesses. Illegal vending also fuels both theft from brick-and-mortar retailers and helps to camouflage drug activity in our neighborhoods.

We worked with the Board of Supervisors and our Departments to pass and begin implementing a new law that will address these major challenges. The new law establishes rules for current and future street vendors operating in San Francisco. Policies will specify a time, location, and other parameters by which street vending participants must follow in order to operate. Vendors must be able to show that they have ownership or the legal right to sell the goods that they are vending. Failure to comply will result in administrative fines and the possible confiscation of goods. However, cited violations will not result in criminal charges — criminalizing this activity is not a cure but we have invested in staffing and community-based outreach to make sure that those who want to engage in this activity lawfully and with good neighbor practices, can do so in a way that adds to the vibrancy and positive activation of our streets and sidewalks.

That law is now in effect, and my budget also includes funding for the Department of Public Works to enforce this law.

Alternatives to a Police Response: The Right Response for Those in Crisis

Public safety also means being smarter in how we respond to different calls for service. For the last year and a half, San Francisco has dramatically expanded our response to 911 calls for behavioral health crises.

Our Street Crisis Response Team, which responds to 911 calls for people with mental health crisis, has grown to seven teams and 24/7 coverage of the City. My budget also adds funding for Mental Health Crisis Counselors to help staff our 911 call center, so that they can help manage and accurately direct the most effective response to 911 calls over the phone, allowing us to free up our Street Response Teams to calls that require a physical presence.

As of the end of June, all of our 911 behavioral health emergency calls are now handled by a non-police response, and the police will only be involved if the situation turns violent. This is a major step that has taken a lot of work.

We are also expanding our Street Wellness Response Team, which responds to 311 calls for service to respond to those struggling on our streets but who are not in crisis. By next week, there will be five Street Wellness Teams responding to calls and proactively doing outreach on our streets.

All of these programs and policies are about increasing accountability and expanding reforms. We don’t have to choose one over the other. We can, and should, prioritize both.

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