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San Francisco hasn’t defunded its police force yet — but just voted to make it smaller

Voters decided to eliminate a longtime police staffing mandate.

Amid nationwide calls for police reform, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in late July to put Proposition E on the ballot.
Vivian Lin/AFP via Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

San Francisco voters have decided to do away with a longtime police staffing law that required the police department to maintain at least 1,971 full-time officers on its force, with their approval of Proposition E, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Now, the strength of the city’s police force will be governed by a police commission tasked with regularly evaluating police staffing levels. The proposition also requires San Francisco to end a requirement that there be a specified number of full-duty sworn police officers assigned to neighborhood policing and patrol — a number law enforcement officials say has never been met due to resource constraints.

The vote arrived at a time when activists in the city — and across the US — are calling for the defunding and dismantling of the police. While Proposition E doesn’t exactly do that, local lawmakers who support the measure said it was designed to be a first step toward meeting San Franciscans’ policing reform demands.

One reform many supporters of defunding the police have called for is taking certain duties, like responding to homelessness and mental health crises, away from police and making them the responsibility of experts trained in those areas.

According to San Francisco Controller Ben Rosenfield, Proposition E could do this: Rosenfield said the estimated annual salary and fringe benefit cost of a full duty-sworn officer is about $155,000, and that savings from staffing reductions could be reallocated to other budget items.

Amid nationwide calls for police reform, the city’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in late July to put Proposition E on the ballot. The president of the city’s Board of Supervisors, Norman Yee, has echoed Rosenfield, arguing Proposition E could help San Francisco “join the growing number of cities dispatching teams of social workers and substance use counselors to respond to calls seeking their skills and service when appropriate.”

The measure’s supporters called the staffing requirement “outdated” and “arbitrary” since voters approved it in 1994, a time when lawmakers and citizens were calling for “tough on crime” policies and more police officers. Proponents also argued that the law does not take into account changes in crime rates, which have fallen since the early ’90s, and the changing role of police officers.

But the San Francisco Police Officers Association opposed the measure, claiming the police department has not met the minimum staffing level in recent years and that the department is consistently short-staffed, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Our response times to 911 calls are lagging because we don’t have enough people on patrol,” Sgt. Tracy McCray, vice president of the police union, told the publication. “They have supervisors who say they want more foot beats. ... It’s kind of hard to do when there’s not a lot of people to go around in the first place.”

But proponents would disagree, arguing the reforms introduced by Proposition E will help streamline work for officers. And voters have sided with them in a small first win for reformers wanting to defund the police.

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