Beware the Budget Cuts, Cameras and Civilians: On the Future of Policing in San Francisco

Near the seven-hour mark of the July 8 meeting of the Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Appropriations Committee on the San Francisco Police Department budget for the next fiscal year, I realized I simply could not go on. After two long presentations, dozens of questions from supervisors and almost five hours of public comment, the end was not in sight. I was exhausted.

This was, for some organizers, the goal. Many of the over 400 callers used a script, provided by the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America’s AfroSocialist Caucus, and asked for the same things as most other commenters. Like people around the country, they are fed up with policing, and in reiterating their demands to “defund, disarm and disband” SFPD they hope to impress upon decision makers that they are part of a much larger movement. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of five Minneapolis Police Department officers, protests against racist police terror have spread around the country. Many people, especially young Black and indigenous people of color, are done accepting the lie that reform, cultural competency training or more diversity in police departments prevent violence. SFPD is no different from Minneapolis police or any other metropolitan police force, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Budget and Appropriations Committee meeting demonstrated the clash between the incrementalism of many of the policymakers and calls for immediate abolition from the public.   

Committee members Norman Yee, Hillary Ronen, Sandra Fewer, Shamann Walton and Rafael Mandelman were joined by SFPD chief William Scott, Supervisor Dean Preston, Deputy Budget Director Ashley Groffenberger from the Mayor’s Office and others. The meeting consisted of presentations from Chief Scott and Nick Menard from the Budget and Legislative Analyst office followed by dozens of questions from the supervisors present and nearly twelve hours of public comment.

All of the supervisors, as well as the Budget Analyst’s representatives, asked Chief Scott pointed questions about different categories of the SFPD budget. Walton wondered aloud about the importance of mounted police, who ride horses in some city parks and come with a price tag of over $2 million, while Preston complained of high spending on overtime. Yee, Ronen and Fewer expressed their frustration with the slow pace of civilianization, the process by which jobs formerly assigned to sworn police officers are reallocated at a lower cost to civilians.

In response to these questions and complaints, Chief Scott emphasized time and time again that “SFPD reforms [should be seen] as the framework for budget increases.” He claimed that the personnel increases, including the hiring of deputy chiefs and other upper level management, constitute “structural support for reforms.” However, we know that the SFPD cannot be reformed. Years of harassment and violence directed at unhoused, marginalized and poor people have displayed that there is no training that can fix the injustice inherent to policing or to San Francisco’s many racist, anti-poor or anti-homeless laws. As the Coalition on Homelessness and other advocates have pointed out time and time again, SFPD “punishes the poorest” through a system of policing that uses violence and harassment to make the lives of the unhoused people unlivable. Through different mayors, police chiefs and public scandals, this anti-homeless brutality has continued. But Chief Scott assured the committee that he has “banned bias in policing” and that therefore the budget increases of the SFPD represent greater oversight and care, rather than just more cops. 

But, with the notable exception of Mandelman, the committee members seemed unimpressed by the Chief’s logic. It was clear that they were ready to demand budget cuts. Prominent among many of their requests was the desire to shift police away from responding to homelessness. 

Indeed, Fewer, Ronen and Preston expressed their discomfort with the inclusion of police in the Healthy Street Operations Center (HSOC) and Homeless Outreach Teams (HOT). Even Mandelman, who had little negative to say about SFPD, wondered aloud if police were always best suited to aid unhoused people in medical distress or those experiencing mental health crises. HSOC especially took the brunt of the supervisors’ complaints. Over $4 million per year is spent to staff HSOC with SFPD officers, an expense which Fewer, Ronen and Preston suggested should be altogether eliminated. Mayor London Breed has also echoed these demands, saying that cops should not respond to calls about nonviolent unhoused people. 

But changing the makeup of HSOC is not enough while we still have unjust laws on the books and the expectation of their enforcement.  While the push to remove police from HSOC is unquestionably positive, we cannot forget the violence that other groups tasked with sweeping unhoused people perpetuate. San Francisco Public Works is the department responsible for the constant confiscation of belongings from unhoused people, as documented through the Stolen Belonging Project. While SFPD is the main vector of the criminalization of homelessnesss in San Francisco, it is not the only agency involved in enacting dehumanizing violence. 

Despite the clear consensus of the eight hours of public comment and the political leanings of some of the more leftist supervisors, discussions of SFPD’s budget were decidedly reformist. Using civilianization to pay people less to uphold a violent system does not make the system less violent. Having civilians answer phones or analyze data may help shrink the bloated police budget, but it is a far cry from abolition.

Assigning the work of SFPD to civilian personnel is not the answer to the calls to reform or reimagine policing in San Francisco. In a recent New York Times article, progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin endorsed a system of cameras that are being put in place all over the city by tech mogul Chris Larsen. These cameras are managed by what the article calls “neighborhood nonprofits” made up of “property owners.” Another name they go by is Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). 

The UC Berkeley Policy Advocacy Project found that BIDs in California “spend property assessment revenue to enact, maintain and strengthen anti-homeless laws” through policy advocacy. They both “collaborate with law enforcement” and “directly enforce” these laws. Not only is this unethical, it is also illegal. Private citizens are not legally allowed to confiscate the belongings of unhoused people or push them from public spaces. Additionally, BIDs use property assessment revenue to lobby to strengthen anti-homeless laws and increase policing, which is undemocratic, according to the Western Regional Advocacy Project. The San Francisco-based homeless advocacy organization reports that in 2020, BIDs in San Francisco will control over $25 million in taxpayer revenue. Of that, over $13.5 million will be spent on cleaning and security programs. These programs directly and violently target homeless people under the guise of good business. 

This is where the cameras come in. In his interview with the New York Times, Boudin described the cameras as a possible money saver. “It takes 10 cops to do a single drug bust, costs $20,000 or something. And I don’t want my attorneys to be doing this for no benefit on the street,” he told the Times. With calls to defund the police abounding, it is easy to see how cameras could be posited as a more budget friendly alternative. But efficiency doesn’t mean justice. Indeed, even if these cameras allowed for fewer drug busts there is no guarantee that the remaining would not be unfairly and unjustly leveled at poor Black and brown people. 

Policing must be reduced, yes, but more than that it must be reimagined. For example, even if cops were forced out of HSOC, it seems unlikely that BIDs and their corresponding Community Benefit Districts (CBDs), would stop their assaults on unhoused people. In fact, it seems likely that they would take over an even greater responsibility in policing poverty. It is disturbing that even ultra-progressives like Boudin are looking to these unregulated and anti-democratic groups to take on roles formerly filled by SFPD, and supporting the expansion of surveillance to aid them. 

To be clear, no one at the July 8 meeting referenced BIDs or the cameras. But the talk of civilianization and even the recommendation to remove cops from HSOC spoke to a narrow and dangerously superficial understanding of police abolition. If the violent, anti-homeless, anti-poor, anti-Black, anti-immigrant and anti-queer laws that govern San Francisco and the United States aren’t abolished, social workers, public health officials and private citizens might very well be deputized to carry out the same carceral practices that police once enacted. 

Redirecting police work to civilians within SFPD or to neighborhood watch groups like BIDs is not abolition. Private security guards, perpetually rolling cameras, or people without badges answering the phone at the precinct is not what we are fighting for. Unhoused, Black and brown, queer and immigrant San Franciscans deserve better. Budget cuts or shady math should not be mistaken for real change. 

Towards the end of that meeting, yet another public commenter came on the line. They told a short story about being stopped in traffic and having a seemingly unhoused person without a shirt on yank at their car door. “I was scared at that moment,” the person said. “I wanted the person on the other side of my window to get help, but I knew I couldn’t call the police. Whatever happened would have been on me, and I couldn’t live with that.”

Our system is deeply and fundamentally broken. Allocating aspects of it to private citizens with even less oversight than the police is not the answer. We don’t need a new or higher tech system to marginalize the many for the benefit of the few. We need a radical reimagining of what our world can look like. We need police abolition, and we need it now.