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SF legislation aims to create 'neighborhood safety' patrols, prioritize community policing

  • By We Heart Leos News
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Dominic Fracassa
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — Two San Francisco supervisors plan to introduce legislation Tuesday that would force the city’s Police Department to rework its approach to deploying foot patrols to prevent crime and foster better relationships with communities.

Supervisors Matt Haney and Shamann Walton are pushing an ordinance that seeks to create new “neighborhood safety units” in each of the city’s 10 district stations.

The new units would oversee foot patrols in high-crime, busy areas while prioritizing “community-based” police work, which seeks to enhance trust between officers and the public through familiarity.

“I hear from the community all the time about the desire for more foot beats. This comes up as much as anything,” Haney said. “People are frustrated, and they’re confused as to why in high-need areas there aren’t officers regularly walking the beat.”

By law, Haney and Walton can’t mandate how many officers would staff the new neighborhood safety units. But as the city works to grow the ranks of its Police Department, the supervisors wanted to ensure the department would prioritize foot patrols and develop concrete plans on how to use them.

There are 49 recruits enrolled in the Police Department’s current academy class, though not all will graduate as police officers: The prior academy class — the department aims for four each year — saw just over 20 people graduate.

“Right now, there is no citywide policy or requirements related to foot patrols,” Haney said. His district, which includes the Tenderloin and South of Market, has the largest foot-patrol deployment, but he said he remains concerned about “inconsistencies” in how they’re assigned.

“It’s done ad-hoc, if at all,” Haney said. “There’s also no law that requires transparency and accountability reports on foot patrols. I think that’s closely connected to why we don’t have enough of them. We need more officers, but if we put more officers out there (foot patrols) should be the priority.”

To that end, Haney and Walton’s ordinance would also require the Police Commission, which sets policy for SFPD, to craft a formal “community policing policy” that codifies the department’s emphasis on foot patrols and their role in promoting better relationships with communities.

“The biggest impact is that these foot-patrol officers are having conversations with the community on a daily basis. They’re getting to know residents and business owners,” Walton said.

“When you build these relationships, the community is receptive to a police presence because they become a part of the fabric of the community, as opposed to an entity that only comes in at a time of crisis.”

In 2018, a study by the UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy found that daily incidents in San Francisco of larceny theft dropped nearly 17%, and assaults dropped 19% in the months after Chief Bill Scott reassigned 69 officers to foot patrols in September 2017 following a surge of smash-and-grab auto break-ins.

The legislation would also direct the Police Commission, along with Scott, to draw a map outlining the footprint for foot patrols within the boundaries of each district station based largely on areas with more violent crime and foot traffic.

The Police Department would also have to produce regular reports on the foot-patrol officers’ activity so the Police Commission and the Board of Supervisors could determine whether the policy changes have been effective.

“We’re all in agreement in terms of the importance of foot beats,” Scott said. “I don’t think there’s any argument about the effectiveness and the need.”

But he’s wary about the legislation hemming in the department’s ability to “remain flexible” in the face of changing needs.

“We have to be able to make adjustments,” Scott said. “The core idea I think is a good thing, but whether legislation is needed to make that happen, I think that’s where we probably have some differences of opinion.”

Haney said he and Walton have already secured support from four of the city’s seven police commissioners: Cindy Elias, Petra DeJesus, John Hamasaki and DionJay Brookter.

“This is about creating a relationship and a rapport between officers and the community and vice versa,” said Elias. But just as compelling, she said, was the prospect of harvesting more granular data about crime.

“With this legislation, we’ll get accountability and data reporting so we can have some statistics to show us if we’re moving in the right direction, and where we can improve,” she said.

“What are the outcomes with this increased engagement with the community? We don’t currently have data on that.”