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.”
Yet the specials insist that at one point they comprised a sizable private police force, and now, owing to department predation, they just don't have the numbers. After the reforms of the mid-'90s, they became little more than gussied-up security guards, watching as the regular police commandeered their precincts, according to the lawsuit. They also say that police fought a war of attrition, letting new patrol special applications languish so that senior patrols couldn't staff up their beats.
At present, only 26 patrol specials remain, costing San Francisco taxpayers an estimated $300,000 for training and oversight. The specials call their lawsuit a valiant effort to keep San Francisco safe, to make extra policing affordable, and to ensure that 10B cops aren't the only for-hire game in town. They say they're protecting San Francisco's neighborhoods from the profit motives of its police union. Opponents say they're just trying to dig in the city's pockets.
Keane thinks the lawsuit — and its demand for $49.7 million in damages — is fairly delusional. “It's hard to see that figure as anything more than theater,” he says. “But if you're gonna go for something, you may as well go for the moon.”
Unfair competition disputes aside, the patrol specials also cast themselves as do-gooders who are providing affordable police services for poor neighborhoods in San Francisco. “As police services are decreasing, the rich neighborhoods are able to pay for extra private [10B] police while poorer neighborhoods are left with less services,” writes Daniel Bakondi, the lawyer leading the suit for the patrol specials.
Indeed, budget shortages led San Francisco to curtail its police academy classes in recent years, creating a shortfall. And since a glut of officers retired in June, the SFPD is currently running at nearly a 25 percent staffing deficit; its Field Operations Bureau boasts a staff of 1,600, well short of the charter-mandated 1,971. That's led Bakondi to claim that both patrol specials and 10B cops are a necessity rather than a luxury; where they once were an attaché, they're now fulfilling regular police duties. And that's hugely problematic if the $100/hour 10Bs are San Francisco's only for-hire option, Bakondi says. Without the cheaper alternative, adequate policing will become a privilege that only certain neighborhoods can afford.
He's not the only person to make that case. In his 2009 research paper for the Oakland-based Independent Institute, Stringham contends that patrols can act as a private supplement for the government-funded police. Although private clients pay for their services, Stringham writes, patrol specials “provide spillover benefits to anyone who desires to keep San Francisco safe.” In economic terms, they'd qualify as a public good.
But there are several problems with Bakondi and Stringham's argument. The first is that patrol specials tend not to patrol poor neighborhoods. Rather, they serve places like the Diamond Heights Shopping Center, the Castro, and the lower 24th Street retail corridor — areas where a willing consortium of merchants opt to pay for their services. The second is that San Francisco police officers don't adjust to staff shortages by ignoring crime in poor neighborhoods; rather, they make tactical decisions and spread things out across the board. They certainly don't compensate by using 10B officers — who mainly oversee street construction projects or provide extra security at special events, like the America's Cup — to walk regular neighborhood beats. The biggest issue is that, even if the SFPD is understaffed and not fulfilling the city's policing demands, it would be extremely poor public policy to sub in a cheaper, privatized patrol force as a Band-Aid. “Privatization of policing creates a paramilitary-like situation,” Keane explains.
Whether the idea of private police has merit or not, the SFPD has crippled the specials in number and power such that they now struggle against irrelevance. The lawsuit can be seen as a last-ditch attempt by the specials to regain some of their former power and, perhaps, reason for being.
But it's entirely possible — and even plausible — that the SFPD will reduce the patrol specials to zero in the coming years. And it wouldn't violate any laws by doing so, Snodgrass says. After all, the city charter doesn't specify any staffing number for patrol specials; it merely says they're allowed to exist. “It would be up to voters to amend the charter and abolish the concept of patrol specials,” Snodgrass says. But, he adds, the concept can certainly persist, even if the actual workforce dries up and blows away, the same way a vestigial organ is remembered for once being a useful part of the organism.