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Procrastinators of the Unbuilt Ark

February 1, 2022
Tony Montoya - SFPOA President

In preparation for the greatest flood the world had ever known, Noah built an ark. Noah didn’t start to build it after the flood waters raged, nor did he start after the heavy rains. Noah built the ark before the storm.

Two years ago, as crime began to surge and the defund the police movement gained momentum, police departments began to lose more and more officers. At the same time, police recruiting floundered. Unfortunately, too many of our leaders chose to look the other way or make speeches about “reimagining” policing.

Well, the police staffing storm has started, and I haven’t seen anyone rushing to build large sea-worthy ships. While this storm’s damage may not be world-ending, it does have the ability to level the SFPD as we know it to rubble. We have a staffing crisis. It’s time for our leaders to grab their hammers and start building themselves an ark or else.

Let’s look at where we are today. The Department’s FY 2023 and 2024 budget presentation to the Police Commission states that the SFPD has 1,673 actual sworn full-duty officers (excluding those assigned to the Airport) during the current budget year. In 2009, there were 1,953 sworn full-duty officers representing a 14% loss of officers.

If that’s our current staffing level, what is the appropriate number of officers given SFPD’s mission and service goals? The answer is: 2,176. That’s not the SFPOA’s number. That is the number recommended by the City’s police staffing expert, Matrix Consulting Group. Matrix’s 2020 report did an exhaustive analysis of our staffing needs. They found “Patrol staffing is severely inadequate to handle incoming community generated workload, as evidence by uncommitted (proactive) time in patrol being well below minimal levels.” Matrix also found that “significant disparities exist in patrol service levels from district to district.”

In a plea for more staffing resources for SFPD, Chief Scott wrote Mayor Breed a letter in December 2021 stating that the pre-pandemic staffing shortage was 265 sworn officers. That number has mushroomed to 481 according to the Chief.

Faced with such shortages, the Department has gutted special units, resulting in police services being cut. Further, the Department now relies on overtime to run the basic operations of the Department. As the Chief wrote to the Mayor, “the impact of operating with so much reliance on overtime is not only financially unsustainable, it could potentially affect the health and safety of those officers who are working beyond their normal shifts. Fatigue impacts the brain’s ability to react quickly and think critically, as well as affects a person’s sense of resilience (i.e., safety). As a result, studies suggest that fatigue leads to poor decision-making surrounding uses of force and a tendency to rely on implicit biases instead of critical thinking.”

We know this to be true. Right now, our officers are overworked with mandated overtime and a lack of days off. They’re tired. They’re frustrated. And there’s no help in sight.

While the above figures are cause for alarm, the news is actually worse. Why? Because a huge number of our officers are now retirement eligible.

Based on the Department’s report to the Police Commission, 26% of our non-airport, full-duty officers are eligible to retire right now. That’s 435 officers who can quit today and start getting a pension check tomorrow. Of that total, 354 (81%) have twenty or more years of service at SFPD. According to SFERS’s numbers, in 2020, 174 SPFD sworn entered the pension system. Last year, only 50 recruits went through the academy. This results in a new loss of 124 officers. With these numbers, you cannot pail water fast enough out of our sinking ship.

Of course, when it rains it pours. Based on the Chief’s projections, even if the City held four academy classes each year (which it never has), those classes would yield 130 recruits combined. Unfortunately, based on our current wash out rates, only 67% of cadets will make it to training. Thus, 130 recruits yield 86 officers-in-training. When looking at the 2020 pension numbers, to make up for 174 officers, we would need to have 260 recruits in the academy in one year, the equivalent of eight academies.

While I understand those are a lot of facts and figures to throw around, the scary reality is no one is discussing these numbers. No one is preparing for the onslaught of vacancies. The SFPOA has always pushed the City to value experienced officers. We know how hard it is to recruit and the negative effects of losing experienced officers. That’s why we worked so hard for our longevity steps that provide an incentive for officers to stay in the Department.

Our leaders best get moving on building that ark as quickly as possible. It’s obvious that they must provide incentives to provide a super boost to recruiting while at the same time find ways to keep experienced officers right now.

Once a ship takes on too much water, the outcome is hopeless. It sinks by the sheer downward momentum created by the flooding. Our leaders better start acting like there’s a crisis on our hands, otherwise they will have zero options for solutions. We all suffer if that happens.