The Return of the Beat Cop

By Saturday, SFPD will have doubled the number of officers who patrol city streets.

SFPD officers patrol the Castro District. (Photo by Thomas Hawk)

The friendly neighborhood policeman is an archetype that’s existed for decades — just watch old episodes of Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, or The Andy Griffith Show — but in recent years, it’s faded away. The safety of the police car may have something to do with it, and understaffing may be another reason — last year, the San Francisco Police Department stated it was short 200 officers citywide.

Aside from the occasional Tenderloin cops who spend their lunch breaks playing basketball at nearby Boeddeker Park, it’s rare to see police out and about on city streets without a car or motorbike nearby.

This past weekend, however, SFPD’s resource allocation changed. Chief Bill Scott announced that SFPD will put more beat cops on the streets — almost doubling what the city has had in recent years.

“We hear time and time again that they [the public] don’t see enough of our uniformed San Francisco police officers out on the beat,” he says. “We are making an adjustment to make that happen.”

The so-called “adjustment” isn’t out of the blue: It comes after a steep spike in property crimes, particularly thefts from vehicles. As the Examiner recently reported, car break-ins have gone up 28 percent in the past year. In the 12 months up to this past July, 17,970 car break-ins were reported citywide. A year prior, that number was 13,995.

The Mission District has been hit hardest, with a 182-percent spike, from 601 to 1,693. Close behind is the Northern District, which includes several tourist destinations such as Alamo Square and the Palace of Fine Arts. A 40-percent increase was recorded in this area, with 4,003 break-ins in the past year.

Scott hopes that upping the number of beat cops on patrol will cut down on this type of crime, and he has a little bit of data to back it up. After 71-year-old Edward French was shot and killed on Twin Peaks on July 16, SFPD upped its deployment in the area. While the effort was originally made to reduce the potential of violent crimes, it had another benefit: a reduction in car break-ins.

“We’ve had a problem with burglaries from vehicles in Twin Peaks, to the tune of about 44 per month,” Scott says. “We enhanced our deployment gravely in that area. We had one for the entire month — July 17 to Aug. 16. One car burglary. That highlights how important it is to have officers on the street.”

Until last weekend, there were fewer than 100 police officers assigned to foot beat patrol in San Francisco. By Sept. 9, there will be “roughly double” that number, Scott says. Central, Park, and Taraval stations will all increase patrols by 100 percent. Mission will quadruple its officers walking the beat. Ingleside will get a neighborhood patrol for the first time, and the Tenderloin has apparently already increased its staff.

But cops didn’t just materialize out of thin air for this project — they were reassigned from other areas, creating holes in services where they left. Several will return to district stations after serving on the Narcotics Task Force, and another specialty team that dealt specifically with patrols will be completely dissolved.

The 18 officers who made up the Patrol Bureau Task Force were successful at their job: During its two-year tenure, they made 228 arrests, mainly related to auto break-ins. Notably, in October 2016, the officers arrested four youth involved in a multi-state car burglary ring, ending a string of crimes that had kept cops busy for months.

Deputy Chief Michael Redmond, who handles the bureau’s field operations, sings the group’s praises.

“They’re some of our best officers, and we’re excited for them to go back to the stations because they’re going to bring a wealth of experience and really develop a lot of the new officers that are at the district stations,” he says.

The decision to dissolve a successful task force is not one Scott took lightly — “This is not a plan that was thought up in a vacuum; we were very thoughtful and strategic in thinking about what we should do,” he says — but it does hint at something larger in regards to how criminals are handled in San Francisco. While a task force that successfully makes arrests may seem effective, once the accused work their way through the court systems, many end up back on the streets, committing the same crimes. It’s a tricky problem: On one hand, no one should have to serve a long sentence for something as mild as auto burglary. On the other, recidivism appears to be high in the car-theft world, making much of the work SFPD does to arrest suspects effectively pointless.

When confronted with this theory at a news conference, Scott sidestepped the question — just.

“We’ve got issues that go beyond what SFPD can control,” he said. “We can make arrests all day long; we can’t control anything beyond that. What we can control is where we put our cops, and how we use our cops.”

As for whether or not this increased presence of officers will work to deter crime, the numbers will tell.

“It’s not the magic bullet, we know it’s only a piece of the puzzle, but we do believe it will make a difference,” Scott says.  “We can’t just keep doing what we’re doing and hope to get different results.”

 

 

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