SF considers bringing back 'patrol specials' from Gold Rush-era amid police shortage

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Saturday, September 23, 2023
SF considers reviving 'patrol specials' amid police shortage
Amid a police officer shortage, San Francisco is considering bringing back Gold Rush-era "patrol specials."

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Short hundreds of officers, San Francisco is now looking back to a Gold Rush-era idea for a possible staffing solution.

The police commission is hoping a new squad of officers will free up the police department to focus on more serious crimes.

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They are called "patrol specials" -- security guards with some police training. For a city struggling to get a handle on crime, some government officials say it could be a quick way to add eyes and ears to the streets of San Francisco.

Crime in San Francisco is trending up. According to the latest city police data, robberies over the last 12 months are up 6% compared to the annual average over the last four years.

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Vehicle thefts are also up 19% compared to the yearly average. City officials are now getting creative, looking at the past to stop future crime, which is leading them to considering patrol specials.

"A patrol special is a modified private security. We are all used to seeing security guards inside buildings. This allows a security guard to go outside into the public area and do surveillance. Make sure there is nothing happening outside the buildings, walk people to cars," said Debra Walker, commissioner for SFPD. "This also will free up our police officers to actually fight crime."

Walker presented the proposal to the police commission this week hoping to officially bring a squad of this type back to the city.

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"It's an existing program that began back in the Gold Rush days when we didn't have police, but it has always operated kind of at the same time as our police department," Walker said.

Currently, there is only one patrol special still active in San Francisco. Walker urged SFPD's chief and other commissioners to revive this program.

"When I became patrol special in 1977, it was 450 patrol specials that were beat owners. You had approximately a little bit over 1,600 regular police officers. At that time there were 200 reserve officers. Now you have 1,600 police officers. One patrol special and just a few reserve officers," said Alan Byard, San Francisco Patrol Special.

SFPD is about 600 officers short. Patrol Specials would be assigned to specific blocks where businesses request their services.

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In the past, they have been armed and their uniform is very similar to that of an officer. Supervisor Aaron Peskin remembers when this group was throughout San Francisco.

"We have to be creative about how to make sure that we have adequate numbers of law enforcement staffing on our street. We are looking at different ways. We have our ambassador programs. We are looking at using police reserves and paying them," said Peskin.

There are about 260 businesses on Fisherman's Wharf. The community benefit district says safety is a major concern. It would like a squad of this type.

"The Patrol Special program is crime prevention through presence. That is what we are asking for," said Randall Scott, executive director of the Fisherman's Wharf Community benefit district. "Just having them around would give tourists, make them feel safer."

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As the police commission irons out the details, Peskin is also worried about why they disappeared.

"The police officers' union was never big fans of the patrol specials. They saw them as competition," said Peskin.

We contacted the police union for comment and did not hear back. There is also an issue of fairness. Because some neighborhoods will be able to afford patrol specials and some won't. For now, the police commission is working with SFPD to define what the training and strategy will be moving forward.

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