No Easy Solution for San Francisco's Police Officer Shortage

Officers are leaving SFPD at high rates while the number of qualified recruits is in decline. Can the city get its police staffing in check?

Police officers
The San Francisco Police Department is short 540 officers. Courtesy photo
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By Robert Holzmann

“Be the change.”

That’s the recruiting slogan thought up by Sgt. Christina Serrano and her staff in the San Francisco Police Department Recruitment Unit. They hope it catches on to alleviate the accumulating job vacancies among their ranks.

“If you want things to change, you have to come and participate in that,” Serrano said. “You need to come help shape things how you want them to be.”

Like the rest of the SFPD she’s doing the best she can with given resources, but those continue to dwindle as the openings continue to grow. There appears to be no relief in sight with the variables for recruiting and retaining officers moving in the wrong direction.

Officers are leaving SFPD at never-before-seen rates while the number of qualified recruits is in decline. As the city experiences high-profile crimes and the desire for more law enforcement grows, can San Francisco get its police staffing in check?

Short Staffed

In 2020, a staffing analysis found SFPD was short more than 400 officers, 18% down from the 2,176 officers needed. Now, the need for officers has grown to approximately 540, according to Mayor London Breed.

But the numbers of police were in decline long before the protests and unrest not to mention the pandemic rocked the city.

SFPD’s recruitment strategy has focused on new ways of leveraging technology to target potential candidates and mentoring them through the long, arduous application process. However, it appears the problem might be more than they can handle on their own.

“We’re all short right now — every unit,” Serrano said. “I understand why there’s a lack of interest. I mean who wants to take on history’s problems?”

Many of the younger generation aren’t interested in joining law enforcement. They have different desires and expectations for work and those are often better met in other professions that can offer better pay and a more manageable work-life balance.

Expanding job requirements and higher expectations of officers have further complicated the hiring process. The public expects police officers to have specific traits that equip them to handle the high stress, high risk job. Some of those are difficult to train or teach and further narrow down the pool of applicants.

“Departments aren’t going out there and just hiring a bunch of buff guys,” Serrano said. “It’s about using your brain and de-escalation now.”

Retention Woes

Getting them is one thing. Keeping them is another.

Retention is another critical aspect to staffing levels that departments across the nation are facing. In a survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum of 200 departments around the country in May 2021, the average retirement rate rose by 45% while resignations jumped another 18%, compared to the previous year.

Short-staffed and overworked, officer morale has fallen, and the subsequent exodus of officers has made possible recruits even less likely to apply.

“When every cop you see is bedraggled and exhausted, it doesn't look appealing,” an officer told this reporter on the condition of anonymity.

In the first six months of 2020, 23 sworn officers resigned, records show. 19 of those resignees took jobs at other law enforcement agencies around the country.

Officers are retiring sooner than they had in the past, many citing frustrations with city officials, their superiors, the high cost of living in the area and the current public sentiment towards police as reasons why they left.

“It's a culture of fear now. It's all risk avoidance. The only metric the police commission and chief care about is how many cops they can fire to show what great reformers they are,” an officer who plans on transferring out of the SFPD said.

“It’s nice working at a place where everyone isn’t mad at you,” said another former officer.

The retention problem is more than just maintaining a certain number of people on the force but more about the experience and quality of those officers and the ripple effects their departure can have.

A RAND Institute study on police recruiting and retention stated, “By reducing the number of officers with experience, turnover inhibits effective decision-making. It diminishes the strength and cohesion a department gains by having experienced staff, and that cannot be replaced over time. Agencies with higher turnover and less experienced officers suffer reduced productivity and more-frequent complaints.”

While there doesn’t seem to be a clear fix-all solution to the police staffing situation, there are places to start. Serrano believes support from City Hall could go a long way. More funding for academy classes and incentives for new recruits would certainly help but even some outspoken support could go a long way.

“It’s feeling like the criminal justice system is broken,” Serrano said. “To feel like the San Francisco political machine isn’t supporting officers is tough and that wears on them.”

Some in City Hall want to focus on crime prevention and intervention programs and move away from more traditional police funding. Critics point to the $706 million SFPD budget, the seventh highest in the US and 9% of the city’s total spending, and feel that that money could be better spent elsewhere.

In San Francisco and the nation as a whole, police support hasn't been a popular subject among democratic politicians, but that might soon change. In a recent study conducted by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce in May 2021, 81% of city voters said that they believe crime has gotten worse over the past few years and 76% said that increasing officers in high crime areas was a high priority.

In a Pew Research study conducted in September 2021, 47% of adults say spending on policing in their area should be increased, compared to 31% in June 2020 with Black and Hispanic Democrats more likely than White Democrats to back increased spending on local police.

Evolving Narrative

There are conflicting answers for solving the longstanding problems that have plagued the city but most agree that the police should have a limited role in responding to certain nonviolent calls. During last year’s budget negotiations, $22.8 million was allocated to fund policing alternatives for mental health crises, overdoses, wellness checks and homelessness.

Proponents see these initiatives freeing up law enforcement time and resources to focus on more serious crime while preventing potentially dangerous situations involving police. It remains to be seen whether these programs will help alleviate some of the strain of the understaffed force but, in the meantime, the police continue to get the majority of those 911 calls.

Crime statistics can be complex and confusing. There are many variables that surround each number while a significant proportion of lower-level crime goes unreported. The pandemic has made those statistics even more difficult to decipher. This enables each side to cherry pick different numbers from the multitudes of data to prove that their side is correct.

Reform takes time, and a short-term crackdown on crime doesn’t impede improvements. Crime is complex and its potential remedies should be flexible. A more holistic approach can be used, one that considers criminal justice reform, crime prevention and a well-integrated SFPD.

Many in the community told this reporter that they want city leaders from all sides can sit down and have an honest discussion about our goals for criminal justice reform and have a willingness to adapt in areas if needed, whether that means more police or not.

“It’s a different issue than how many people are arrested, or who the DA prosecutes,” Police Commissioner James Byrne said. “It's simply the ability to have some quality of life in the street.”

The only answer to the police officer shortage San Francisco has right now is paying current officers to work over time.

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