The Right to Remain Special: The City's Other Police Force Struggles Against Extinction

About a month before her death in May of 2010, Jane Warner was visited by a uniformed police officer armed with a sheaf of legal papers. They were formal misconduct charges against Warner for alleged misdeeds she'd committed while serving as a patrol special — a privately hired rental cop — in San Francisco's Castro District. Namely, jaywalking.

Warner's wife, Dawn, says the San Francisco police were constantly hounding Warner with petty charges because she'd become the public face of the smaller, privatized police force that dates back to the Gold Rush era: the patrol special police. A little-known vestige of the 1851 charter, patrol specials were the brainchild of San Francisco's first police chief, Marshal Malachi Fallon, who evidently thought the specials could take over if the city's regular police force went down. That happened exactly once, during a massive police labor strike of 1975. Ninety percent of the SFPD walked off the job and patrol specials picked up the slack — a feat for which they are still congratulating themselves.

Since then, however, San Francisco's two-tiered police system has seemed confusing or unnecessary, depending on whom you ask. Patrol special police are virtually indistinguishable from regular police officers. They wear uniforms cut in a different shade of blue with seven-pointed stars instead of six, and a bright blue stripe along the pant leg. They carry guns, but have no arresting powers. They're sworn in and overseen by the San Francisco Police Commission, but paid entirely by businesses within their precincts. They constitute a private force that purports to serve the public good.

But that doesn't mean they get along with the larger police force. Warner had a history of confrontations with San Francisco's police commission over rules it imposed to cripple the patrol units, and according to Dawn, she was always duly punished.

"They trumped up charges against her all the way around," Dawn says, recalling the death-bed altercation. "They thought, 'If we can get rid of Jane, we can get rid of the patrol specials.'"

Now, three years after Warner's death, the patrol specials have taken arms against their more-powerful rival. The specials believe that private, merchant-backed policing could be a panacea for a metropolitan city with a shortage of real officers. Yet, they argue, both the city and the SFPD have launched a stout offense against the patrol specials, doing everything in their power to shut the private police force down.

Their main grievance is SFPD's 10B rent-a-cop program, which launched in 1982 as a vehicle for regular police to hire themselves out for special events and construction projects, clocking in hours of lucrative overtime. The patrol specials see it as unfair competition, in that it provides a way for regular cops to filch prospective merchant contracts, and encroach on territory that rightfully belongs to the specials. In March, the specials filed a lawsuit against San Francisco and its police department, arguing that both defendants were using 10B as a cudgel to drive the patrols out of business. They demand $49.7 million in compensation.

That's basically the entire earnings of the 10B program over the last four years. "Their claim is that every dollar that has ever come out of the 10B program should be theirs," says Deputy City Attorney Wayne Snodgrass. "At least, I believe that's their thought process." He sees the patrol specials as a Gold Rush anachronism, and believes the lawsuit stems from grudges that the ersatz police force has nursed for years.

The fight really started brewing a decade after SFPD consolidated its 10B program. And some historians say the impetus was, indeed, to compete with the then-still-viable patrol specials. San Francisco's Police Officers Association noticed that the patrol specials held valuable contracts with shopping malls, nonprofits, housing project managers, and other businesses, according to economist Edward Stringham, who studied San Francisco's parallel police forces as an associate professor at San Jose State University. They effectively controlled what SFPD saw as a viable income stream. At that time, regular officers weren't allowed to work more than 20 hours of voluntary overtime per week, so SFPD conceived the 10B program as a "workaround," and sold it to merchants as a better — if more expensive — alternative to the patrol. The whole idea, Stringham writes, was to provide SFPD officers with assignments that could exceed the legal overtime limits. That way, the officers could boost their own salaries, and with that, the base rates upon which their pensions were calculated.

Patrol specials claim that competition for merchant contracts motivated the San Francisco police to defang the specials with a series of reforms in 1994. First, the Police Commission revoked their power to arrest.Then it changed the color of their uniforms. UC Hastings law professor and former San Francisco Police Commissioner Peter Keane demurs, saying it's hubristic for the patrol specials to think of themselves as cops in the first place — or even as cop competitors. "I don't think the police department sees them as any kind of threat or rivalry," he says. "When you try to compare their power to that of a police officer association or a chief, it just pales."

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Actually, Patrol Specials PAY for their own SFPD-Academy training and ammunition, and that has long been the practice. Apparently the SFPD will soon be raising that fee. 

Thus taxpayers benefit because the Specials pay for their own training, uniforms, weapons, patrol cars, police-frequency radios, and all expenses of running a small business such as payroll tax for assistants, marketing costs, and operational costs. They have no city-paid office space in which to meet and cannot use the SFPD office except to checkin right before they take up their private policing posts or assignments.  

Marcy's point is spot on: who among us in the private sector work for free? Don't security guard companies provide private safety services? Don't off=duty SFPD officers also work private security assignments as Swan states? Should therefore off-duty SFPD officers work for free in areas that can't afford their services? Should security guard firms donate their services for free?

Yet the Specials have one added benefit over a security guard company of not only operating a quasi-private public safety business, but also being quasi-public. 

That is, just like for SFPD officers, Patrol Special clients have the theoretical  "protection" of local oversight. Sadly enough, commission oversight has been almost nil, or at odd times involves itself in micromanaging operational matters that are not their concern nor that of their clients.

In North Carolina the state attorney general oversees their private police program, and he told me that he has "no time to deal with operational matters" but cares only about private police compliance with the law. Why then does the San Francisco commission care and have time enough to propose recently that Patrol Special business owners (called "beat owners") physically patrol one day per week, rather than simply hire qualified and commission-regulated assistants--when clients are not complaining? Isn't the issue really effective patrolling pursuant to a contract? And indeed, who has been complaining? This proposed regulation is nonsensical micromanaging at best and  harassment at worst.


I just got around to reading Ms. Swan's article.  It appears that her main objection to the Patrol Specials is that they do not patrol where they are not paid to do so; therefore, I am wondering if any of us that offer our services for a fee in the private market, including Ms. Swan, should be made to work for free when clients cannot pay.  True, the Patrol Specials receive training which is paid by taxpayers, but they also save taxpayers money by providing a service that would otherwise cost a great deal more. 


Critical misunderstandings exist in Ms. Swan's article. First, it's great (not poor) public policy to strengthen and extend the availability and public knowledge of the effective safety resource of the Patrol Specials. Even Supervisor Scott Wiener has written in favor of this policy in his district, and other supervisors have spoken favorably about the dedicated community service of prior Patrol Special leader Jane Warner who served the Castro for 18 years and has a plaza named after her. 

It's not poor public policy when Patrol Specials save taxpayer dollars as private individuals pay for a local officer who is trained according to standards set by the Police Chief him/herself.  It's not poor public policy when the City pays a pittance for their supervision, which supervision for almost 170 years has been spotty at best and detrimental to public safety at worst. The City has never supported this valuable resource, and that is one major reason there are so few officers left: they just aren't well known throughout the City. Patrol Specials handle extremely well and sensitively the simpler disturbances that public police don't have time to handle, and sometimes don't even care to handle. Besides, the police commission regulates this private police force and also regulates the 10b off duty private policing program of the SFPD: isn't that akin to the fox guarding the chicken house? Seems so to me!

Second, the Patrol Specials are a lot more than "gussied up" security guards. They are and always have been police officers.  If anything is unfairly perjorative, it's Ms. Swan's conclusion. The Specials are far better qualified than are security guards, are on certain police radio channels to know what criminal activity is occuring, they are trained annually in class and on the range, and are regulated locally so that any citizen complaint can be addressed by the police commission and not by Sacramento.

Third, it's simply not true that only rich neighborhoods can afford to hire Patrol Special Police:  residents can join with merchants to pool funds and each pay only dollars per month to afford an officer, as we do in Glen Park. There's nothing stopping any neighborhood from doing the same, even to the tune of $5 per month. But if the City effectively guts the program and there are no officers available, then how can poor neighborhoods even find an officer to hire? To me that seems the larger problem.

Fourth, these unique private police are far more than a "band aid;"  they are close at hand and respond rapidly, become known and trusted, and handle smaller disturbances before they become large and expensive crimes. They are simply cost effective and crime-preventing. Look how police captains and officers are moved around having little allegiance to a district! 

Whatever Keane means by "para military", that's surely not pejorative.  I prefer having the Patrol Specials in my neighborhood and in my home walking my streets (private security guards are less trained and have to stand at a fixed post), getting to know and care about my family and personal safety. I prefer them to more public police who often lust after lucrative higher salaries, overtime, off-duty private assignments, and benefits. And did you know that taxpayer's pay for off-duty SFPD use of patrol cars, weapons, and uniforms during their private policing assignments?  Why should we be doing that? The Patrol Specials pay for their own weapons, patrol cars, uniforms, and all small business expenses.

"Allowing them to exist" by the City effectively gutting the program through indifference and sometimes active harassment, is surely not what the City Charter contemplates, and certainly something any responsible judge will take a close look at in this lawsuit to prevent and ameliorate.

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