SFPD chief worries about loss of hundreds of officers amid staffing shortage

ByKen Miguel and Phil Matier via KGO logo
Wednesday, August 3, 2022 10:04PM
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San Francisco Police Chief William Scott worries about the loss of hundreds of officers amid staffing shortages as people retire and quit.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Some 50 veteran officers exited the San Francisco Police Department last month with only eight-to-10 recruits coming in to take their place.

Overall, the city is down about 300 officers, meaning fewer police on the streets, longer response times for critical crimes and little or no time to interact with the public.

"The situation is bad," said Chief Bill Scott.

"Nearly a quarter of the department's staff is, or will soon be, eligible for retirement. Some officers are staying on longer but in June, 50 officers called it quits. But only a dozen joined the force," Scott said.

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And San Francisco is not alone.

"It's a nationwide problem," Scott said in an interview with ABC7's Phil Matier.

The lack of police has forced SFPD to adjust its response to crimes.

"Well, they are now prioritizing calls differently. A report of shots fired is going to be a higher priority than an active robbery. The average response time in San Francisco is about eight minutes. That's up slightly, but way up from 30 years ago when the department had more officers," said Scott.

The chief says the response time then was just three minutes.

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"And we all know, when it comes to crime, a lot can happen in seconds -- not minutes," he said

But with just 25 people coming into each police academy, and with many of those "washing out," the question now is how will SFPD ever be able to keep up with staffing demands?

One way is money, and the board of supervisors just approved funds to lure more officers to the city by the Bay.

The thing to remember is the fact that San Francisco is now competing with every department in the region -- and in the state.

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Questions that potential officers are weighing in include living arrangements, affordability and commute times.

Phil Matier: Chief, how many officers are you down right now, from what we should have?

Chief Scott: It's over 500... 25 from what we should have based on our staffing analysis.

Phil Matier: So we have 1,200 for the whole nine yards. It comes to about how many a day, a shift?

Chief Scott: We are really looking at approximately 300 officers.

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Phil Matier: What effect is that having on policing?

Chief Scott: Well, it's definitely a strain to keep up with the calls for service. It's a strain to keep up with the demand of what our residents and community members want in the city.

Phil Matier: And a good number of those are now assigned to the Tenderloin and the downtown because that's a high visibility area, right?

Chief Scott: That is very high visibility, so yeah. Just to clarify when we say 300, you know, the Tenderloin station has over 100 officers. They're not all working at the same time.

Phil Matier: But while we have 100 at the Tenderloin, a residential station, like Park station out by Golden Gate Park has something like, what 40 officers?

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Chief Scott: They have over 50 -- mid-50s.

Phil Matier: That seems like a pretty big area for not too many cops.

Chief Scott: The call load at the Park station is much different than the call load at Tenderloin.

Phil Matier: But I understand on some nights between midnight and 6 a.m., you're down to two squad cars.

Chief Scott: Yeah, and that's very challenging. And thank goodness, we've been able to augment that staffing with overtime. So we have what we call "backfill."

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Phil Matier: So we have mandatory overtime. It's not optional?

Chief Scott: At times we do.

Phil Matier: Let's get down into a little bit of the fabric stuff that you only notice when it's not there. Or sometimes you don't notice. For example, traffic cops and the problem with San Francisco traffic. Do we even have that many traffic cops left?

Chief Scott: We do. I mean, our traffic company has also dwindled from what it used to be. There was a time when there were 70-plus motorcycle officers we called "solos." It's hovering around the mid-40s and -50s now.

Phil Matier: Chief, as the number of police has dropped, what about the need? What about the calls and the need for services? We have sideshows now -- we didn't have those 10 years ago. We do have the rampant drug dealing. We have the grab robberies. We have the freeform shoplifting. All those things, they're going seem to be going up while the police numbers are going down. What's the effect?

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Chief Scott: Well, the effect is a strained police department. And you know, we can't be everywhere at all times. We have to do the best we can with what we have. But we also need to be efficient with our resources. You have a dwindling workforce with a call load that is going up, and the community demands. Most community meetings that I go to, people are really demanding that they see foot beat officers in their neighborhoods -- particularly the business corridors, the tourist areas. They want to see officers visible because we don't want people going to our most popular sites in San Francisco -- whether they be people that live here or visit here -- and get their cars broken into or get robbed and all those things. So there's a high demand.

Phil Matier: Well, speaking of challenges, I understand that in June, over 50 officers either retired or left the department, some to go to other departments. How many came in? How many graduated from your recruit class?

Chief Scott: The recruit classes have been small lately, and we're looking. There's one class that had I think 13 officers and one had 19. And we're getting anywhere from 25 to 30 in the academy and usually about 80% of those make it through the academies.

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Phil Matier: If we have 20, 30 or 40 a month leaving for whatever reason. And we have 13-to-20 coming in, the math isn't in your favor.

Chief Scott: No, and that's one of our top priorities right now, is not only to hire, but to retain. That pace accelerated over the last two years in terms of more people leaving than we were bringing in. One of our top priorities is to turn that around.

Phil Matier: What's the impact on policing and catching the bad guys, whether it be somebody that runs a red light, or somebody that steals from a store or somebody that shoots at someone?

Chief Scott: Calls for service, we have response time goals, and we try to get to our highest priority calls -- which we call A priority -- within eight minutes. When you don't have enough officers to respond to the call load, the response time typically goes up. We've seen our response time tick up over the last couple of years.

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