Retire the Patrol Special Police, City Controller says

San Francisco has its share of historical curiosities. From the trolley cars to the aging male Summer-of-Love burnouts who still wear ponytails, our city tends to tolerate artifacts of its past. But for one such artifact, the San Francisco Patrol Special Police, time could be running out.

The Patrol Specials have been around since the Gold Rush. Members of a quasi-public security force, the 27 Patrol Specials who still walk the city's streets today aren't exactly cops. Instead, they're hired directly by businesses, but can carry firearms and use the San Francisco Police Department dispatch system.

They're also under the oversight of the police commission, which recently received a report from the Controller's office recommending that they be nixed. Controller Ben Rosenfeld states that consultants who reviewed the Specials' operations "recommend that the Patrol Specials no longer operate under the City Charter." Among the findings were that oversight of the Patrol Specials costs the city $300,000 annually, that the officers "routinely violate" their own rules and procedures, and that bad behavior by the Specials could open the city to legal liability.

Police Commission president Joe Marshall, who praised the thoroughness of the report, said the liability issue, in particular, is "a huge obstacle to overcome," adding that the Patrol Special Police is "not really regulated. Nobody really knows what's going on."

But the Specials, and their allies, are pushing back. "It's just bullshit. They didn't understand San Francisco history," said Ann Grogan, a Glen Park resident and Patrol Specials client. "It seemed to be biased from the beginning." Alan Byard, president of the Patrol Specials Police Officers Association, said the rule violations cited in the report stem from the city's confusing regulations. "When they say violation of rules and regulations, we're not talking about unlawful use of force or excessive force," he said. "We're talking about administrative violations" such as inadequate uniforms or paperwork. He also said the Specials carry liability insurance that would shield the city from costly lawsuits.

The Specials still have a trump card to play: the satisfaction of their clients. In an age of slow police response times and impersonal city officials, the Specials' knack for walking a neighborhood beat has a lot of appeal. "Those businesses that get good service love it," Marshall acknowledged. He said the police commission will soon hold a hearing giving the Specials and their clients a chance to rebut the report. But without a strong showing, this piece of San Francisco history might find itself outlived by the trolley car.

 
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