Today marks the third anniversary of a tragic day in San Francisco’s storied history. It’s the day mayor London Breed unveiled with great fanfare a new budget, which included fresh “investments to prioritize racial equity and reinvest in the African American community,” intended to ensure continued “progress on homelessness and behavioral health.”

The budget also cut $120 million in funding for law enforcement.

“With this budget, we are listening to the community and prioritizing investments in the African American community around housing, mental health and wellness, workforce development, economic justice, education, advocacy and accountability,” Breed said.

Here we are exactly three years later, and I see this quote in the San Francisco Standard this morning from Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who represents the affluent Marina, Pacific Heights, and Presidio Heights neighborhoods: “Given the ongoing police staffing crisis, public safety must be an all-hands-on-deck effort.”

Catherine Stefani

Stefani is among those who want San Francisco to return to a bygone era when privately funded quasi-police officers, known as “patrol specials,” were responsible for protecting the city’s businesses and residents. Patrol specials date back to the Gold Rush era, “when the city was lawless,” the city’s controller wrote in 2010.

Under London Breed, San Francisco’s lawlessness has come full circle.

Although San Francisco was long famed for its natural beauty, great restaurants, and historic neighborhoods, the city had a perennial seedy side long before Breed became the city’s leader.

My longtime favorite restaurant was a place called Dottie’s, which anyone who ever ate there will tell you it served the best breakfast in the country. Dottie’s original location was in a sorry neighborhood known as the Tenderloin and walking to the restaurant required stepping over syringes and other drug paraphernalia. Dottie’s later moved to a slightly less seedy neighborhood, and closed in December 2021, ostensibly because of San Francisco’s pandemic shutdown.

San Francisco’s patrol specials were still prominent as recently as 1982, when the city was divided into 64 beats patrolled by patrol specials who purchased their territories for as little as $500. By 2010, there were just 26 active beats. Now there is just one patrol special named Alan Byard — and he’s planning to retire soon.

Wouldn’t you know it, Byard’s three beats are in Stefani’s Marina district.

As reported by the Standard, Byard currently has 190 paying customers—local merchants and residents looking to secure their properties. He charges $65 a month for providing security for a residence, and business protection starts at $300 a month. That service can include check-ins on a home when someone is traveling or peeking inside businesses after hours. 

Patrol specials, who are armed and have a city seal on their dark blue uniforms, are to law enforcement what nurse practitioners and physician assistants are to the healthcare industry. They aren’t real police officers, just like NPs and PAs aren’t real doctors, but they are considered a step up from private security officers.

That’s because patrol specials are licensed by The Police Commission after passing background checks and undergoing 64 hours of training at the police academy, including courses on firearms and criminal law. Patrol specials can communicate with police dispatch and any disciplinary violations are meted out by the Police Commission.

By comparison, to become a real San Francisco police officer requires 664-hours of basic training in 42 topics, including use of weapons, responding to critical incidents, and communication. It takes only 32-hours of training to become a California security guard, who are required to get a special license to carry a gun. California security guards are licensed by the state Bureau of Security Investigative Services.

San Francisco officials see the reintroduction of patrol specials as a solution to the crisis created by Breed when she cut the police budget and created the shortage of police officers that no doubt helped enable San Francisco’s lawlessness, as did policies that allow those engaged in rampant property crime and other illegal activities to get off with nary a wrist slap.

“We need more blue on the sidewalks, and I don’t think there’s anyone disagreeing with that. This is one way of doing it. We are looking at reimagining it,” said Randall Scott, the head of the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District, who told the Standard he was working with the San Francisco Police Officers Association and SFPD on relaunching patrol specials.

Randall Scott/Fisherman’s Wharf photo

San Francisco’s patrol specials are a variation of the protection rackets run by organized crime. For a fee, they are awarded the right to patrol the streets in designated areas, referred to as beats, not territories as organized crime families refer to their areas of oversight.

Given they are licensed by the San Francisco police, patrol specials presumably won’t harm businesses that don’t pay them protection money. But enabling patrol specials creates a two-tiered security class system: Businesses and residents who can afford personalized security protection and those who can’t.

It seems a safe bet to presume that residents and businesses in economically disadvantaged communities can’t afford to cough up $65 and $300 a month for some security protection. For a city whose mayor and other officials talk a good game about “prioritizing investments in the African American community,” using city resources and finances to train for-profit quasi-police officers that only the affluent can afford is a disgrace.

Another disgrace is the new office dedicated to serving victims of San Francisco’s growing crime that Supervisor Stefani spearheaded. Called the Office of Victim and Witness Rights, the agency is intended to better coordinate services for victims of crime, regardless of whether the incident was reported to police, or the perpetrator faces charges.

I was unable to determine the budget for Stefani’s new agency, but common sense dictates the money would be better spent on securing better law enforcement to reduce the number of crime victims, rather than create a likely useless agency to help them.

The last thing San Francisco needs is another agency.

In a story that was both hysterical and tragic, a Standard reporter recently tried to determine how many departments, commissions and advisory boards San Francisco has. He made dozens of calls, and sent emails and texts, but no one at City Hall could, or would, give the reporter a definitive answer. Staff at the Mayor’s Office said they once knew the numbers—an intern apparently had been assigned the task of counting—but the report couldn’t be located.

After weeks of trying, the reporter was given an estimated tally based on statements of interest filed by department heads. San Francisco has 53 departments, 56 boards and commissions, and 74 more advisory bodies, a grand total of 183 entities. That doesn’t include other informal groups created by the mayor and city agencies.

Little wonder San Francisco currently has more than 180 vacancies for members of the public to serve across an array of boards, commissions, and advisory bodies.

Meanwhile San Francisco’s crime is mounting, with some businesses getting looted multiple times. A local television recently featured a restaurant owner whose business was broken into seven times. That bested the record of an eyeglass boutique, which at last count was looted six times in the space of eight months.

Breed promised that the law enforcement money she redirected would continue making progress on homelessness and behavioral health. Yet San Francisco’s homeless problem has worsened. A local reporter in May likened San Francisco to a “Third World” city overrun with suffering homeless and mentality ill persons high on fentanyl.

Collier Gwin, who owns an art gallery in San Francisco, was recently arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery after spraying a mentally ill homeless woman with water. Gwin was pilloried on social media after a clip of the incident went viral and he has admitted his behavior was wrong.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Gwin said his temper got the best of him after the mentally ill woman made an “unsanitary mess” in front of his building.

“What the video doesn’t show is the context—namely the frustration and helplessness of my neighbors and me,” Gwin wrote. “For weeks we had done the right thing. We called the police and social services 50 times over 25 days—exactly as instructed by Mayor London Breed. Everyone who showed up told us they couldn’t move the woman, no matter what she was doing to herself and the community.

“In my city, shoplifting, drug dealing, and drug abuse aren’t treated as crimes, but my act of frustration earned me 35 hours of community service. This is another reminder of how broken San Francisco has become and how inhospitable the current laws are to small business owners and taxpayers.”

What’s most alarming is that mayor Breed is running for reelection to a second term. Holding office in San Francisco is a great steppingstone.

California governor and presidential aspirant Gavin Newsom previously served as mayor, and vice president Kamala Harris previously served as the city’s district attorney. If Breed isn’t re-elected, she will no doubt find even better employment in Washington where failed leadership is celebrated and rewarded.

Happy anniversary, Mayor Breed.

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