In 2018, after three decades of service, I retired from the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) and stepped aside as president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association. My departure left one more vacancy in an agency already struggling to hire and deploy qualified men and women to fill its budgeted ranks. In those pre-pandemic years, most police and sheriff agencies in California were facing similar recruitment and retention issues. Now, five years later, those same issues have devolved into a city, state and national crisis.
The result has been skyrocketing crime in San Francisco and other major cities. Just consider that the number of homicides in San Francisco through September 3 of this year was 52% higher than the same period in 2019. Auto thefts were up a staggering 59% through September 3 of this year compared to the same period in 2019. And the number of gun violence victims rose 62% between 2019 and 2021.
This crime problem has dealt San Francisco a series of recent economic blows. Several big-name retailers — Nordstrom, Trader Joe’s, The Gap and Old Navy — have closed their doors and packed up, citing extreme retail theft and safety concerns for their customers and employees. Gump’s, the oldest retailer in San Francisco, recently announced it will close if conditions continue to deteriorate.
Even with more than 500 vacant SFPD positions, and despite these dire crime statistics and harmful store closures, the city’s leaders do not appear to be aggressively focused on the obvious solution: hiring more sworn police officers.
Instead, they have chosen to rely on a band-aid approach — hiring dozens of unarmed, powerless “ambassadors” and minimally paid street monitors to try and dissuade criminals. It is just one more failed step in the disastrous “defund and defame the police” movement.
Career criminals and opportunists have been further emboldened by no cash bail and other soft-on-crime policies that allow for the immediate release of those arrested and often result in no prosecution or other consequences for the crime.
This frustrates the street cops who watch arrested people walk out the revolving jail door before the arresting officers have even finished writing the report. On the night last year that San Francisco voters booted District Attorney Chesa Boudin from office, a city police officer tweeted, “Tonight, for the 15th time in 18 months, and the third time in 20 days, we are booking the same suspect at county jail for felony motor vehicle theft.”
All of this sends a “why bother” message to conscientious young officers who are fed up and opting to leave the profession. Nationally, there were 50% more officer resignations in 2022 than in 2019, and officer retirements during that same period were 20% higher. It is no wonder that our nation now has fewer police officers per resident than at any other time in the last quarter century — and the highest crime rate in decades.
The San Francisco Police Department was once a destination department for new recruits and for veteran officers looking to make a lateral move from another department. Sadly, that is no longer the case. SFPD’s past practice was to budget for new academy classes numbering 50 recruits. There has been no class of 50 in over five years. Classes are now composed of as few as 12 recruits three times a year. With a current attrition rate of over 80 officers per year, the numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate and simply not sustainable.
What is needed to reverse San Francisco’s — and the nation’s — police retention and recruitment crisis are elected officials who are committed to investing in law enforcement’s future for the sake of public safety.
In 2020, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and the board of supervisors cut $120 million from the SFPD budget. Now, they need to own up to that mistake by reversing course and bolstering funds for officer recruitment, retention, training and equipment.
For starters, they need to provide new hires and laterals with signing bonuses like so many other departments have done. Desperate times require desperate measures, and recruits need to know that a single mistake will not lead to abandonment, indictment or possibly the end of their police career.
What is most sad about the lack of new officers wishing to join this most noble and honorable profession is that the citizens who need police the most — those living in high-crime areas — will not get the level of protection they need and deserve. I fear for them if this crisis progresses further. It is the responsibility of our elected representatives in San Francisco — and nationwide — to change the course of this crisis. Let’s see if they have the will to do so.