SFPD's shadow disciplinary system wastes taxpayer money

Behind a vast, thick glass window flanked by locked doors, a dozen vacant-faced figures mill around so slowly that it seems as if the stolid boredom of life in this room has slowed the passage of time.

Standing near the window is a tall fellow who's been here a few months, but hasn't told the others what he's in for. Meanwhile, a barrel-chested man has been in more than a year despite doing everything he can to get out. But he's losing hope. Like many people stuck in the records room, the operations center, the planning division, and other similar facilities here at San Francisco's Hall of Justice, he says he's innocent, and that the system has merely given him a raw deal.

"People in there have languished for years waiting. I have people waiting two, three, four years, before things were adjudicated," said Mike Evanson, who himself has been — to use the inside law-enforcement term — "put on ice" here. "There's a guy who was let out only after seven years."

Though this veritable holding facility shares the same street address as the San Francisco County Jail, these people aren't incarcerated in the normal sense of the word. They're San Francisco police officers who have been put in what are called "nonpublic contact positions," filing reports, monitoring video-display terminals, and otherwise performing clerical or other nonpatrol jobs pending disciplinary hearings before the Police Commission. Though humiliating and suffocating, being put on ice isn't technically a form of punishment under department rules. So there seem to be no explicit guidelines for who gets put here.

Some claim they've been sent to this informal purgatory simply because they ran afoul of a superior, but have no disciplinary charges against them. Others, such as Sergeant Evanson, were embroiled in the 2005 Videogate scandal, where several officers at the Bayview station produced a bawdy video that Chief Heather Fong deemed offensive to minorities, gays, and homeless people. Many officers aren't here for discipline reasons. Some were sent to nonpatrol positions after being injured. Still others have become tired of police work, and managed to wiggle themselves into $100,000 per year.

This veritable padded cell for inactive police costs the city tens of millions of dollars per year — a fact that's no secret. These jobs could be filled by clerks making half the salary of a typical SFPD officer. So-called "civilianization" of these sorts of positions was the subject of ballot initiatives in 1994 and 2004. City audits in 1998 and 2004 described the department's policy of turning cops into clerks as a waste of money. And insiders say this informal punishment system is questionable as a management tool, because it devastates morale and prevents cops from fighting crime.

Today, two separate sections of the City Charter demand that these cop clerk positions be scrutinized every year, and that the practice be curbed. But it's not. The Police Commission has during recent years ignored the section of the charter that says it "shall initiate an annual review to civilianize as many positions as possible." The most recent civilianization report I could find submitted by the commission to the Board of Supervisors was dated 1998. "We don't have the resources," says Police Commission president Theresa Sparks.

In lieu of the independent Police Commission "civilianization" study required by the charter, the Police Department, in conjunction with the city controller, has issued estimates of how many tasks might be performed by nonpolice officers. The department and the controller also estimate how much it would cost to hire civilian clerks, so that officers might be able to go back onto the street.

The 2007-2008 budget added 12 new nonpolice posts, with a total initiative cost of $1.4 million. The 2008-2009 budget was supposed to pay for 19 new civilian positions so as to move deskbound officers to the street. But many of them were cut.

This year, in an example of the sort of absurd logical twist that could emanate only from a dysfunctional bureaucracy, the mayor's 2009-2010 budget proposal says, in essence, that the city doesn't have enough money to stop overpaying police officers millions of dollars for clerical work. (More precisely, the budget does not provide funding for additional civilianization.)

Such backward thinking comes from a system that allows police brass — who need somewhere to put exiled officers — to oversee civilianization of the department. Why should police managers eliminate a system that suits their needs?

A 2008 consultant's study showed San Francisco to have nine cops for every civilian police department employee, whereas in similar-sized cities such as San Diego and Seattle, the ratio is 2.5 to one. The difference isn't less paperwork in San Francisco. It's that we have more than 200 cops pushing paper. Some of these cops could be put on the street without the need for replacement clerks, because they're wasting time as it is.

Some consider themselves subject to an arbitrary system of discipline, where clerical work is a form of punishment, and are in no mood to become the secretarial version of Starsky and Hutch.

"We're like high-paid copy center people," said Andrew Cohen, famous as the star of the Videogate scandal. Cohen has been on ice ever since, performing the redundant job of printing out police reports and hand-delivering them to other clerks so data can be retyped into other police department computers. Cohen says he takes an entire day performing tasks that would be done with a 15-minute e-mail anyplace else.

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