Startups thrive where government falls short. Buses too slow? Grab an Uber. TSA lines too long? Clear will waive you through. Police not keeping you informed about crime? Join Citizen and have your neighbors tell you about crime in your neighborhood. The latter example is just the beginning of the privatization of public safety. It’s a troubling trend that is likely to continue unless San Francisco changes course and rapidly invests in the modernization and expansion of its public safety infrastructure.
The public safety needs and expectations of San Franciscans are not being met. According to the FBI, in 2017, there were 6,301 incidences of violent crime, 367 rapes, 54,356 property crime cases, and 4,834 motor vehicle thefts. On top of this, the San Francisco Police Department has seen a 38 percent increase in the number of high-priority service calls in the past six years.
Amid the high level of crime, people are limiting their activity to the small spaces they feel safe. It’s unsurprising to hear about places in the city that people avoid, times of night when people dare not venture out, and methods of transportation deemed too dangerous to merit testing. Some of these fears are grounded in bias and stereotypes, right or wrong they nonetheless prevent the city from flourishing. Corporations, aware of just how unsafe people feel in San Francisco, are opting out of exposing their employees and customers to the dangers — real and perceived — of the city. Case in point, Oracle recently opted to move its OpenWorld conference out of the city, taking its 60,000 guests and $64 million in anticipated economic activity elsewhere.
At a time where crime seems rampant, drug abuse uncontrollable, and homelessness unstoppable, many San Franciscans are directly challenging those charged with keeping us safe. For example, supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer recently scorned the Police Officers Association during a political rally. She later apologized to SFPD officers, but nonetheless succeeded in encouraging those who see the police as the enemy. This view is not without merit. It’s no secret that some police in the Bay Area have often struggled to mitigate their biases against people of color and low-income individuals. But rallying against the police and diminishing the community’s trust in our public safety officials will only expedite a world in which startups are policing our streets (or at least the streets of their customers).
The private sector has already started replacing the public safety sector. Consider that the wealthiest in the Bay Area are hiring their own firefighters. Others are using apps and gadgets such as Nest cameras and Ring doorbells to take control of their own safety. And Citizen, an app previously called Vigilante, is giving community members a platform for reporting crimes and flagging potential unsafe areas and people.
This trend will continue so long as the San Francisco Police Department is understaffed and underfunded. New York has 42.3 police officers per every 10,000 residents; Chicago has 49.3, Miami has 42.3. Meanwhile, San Francisco has just 26.3 officers per every 10,000 residents. These statistics underscore the shortage of people power required to address San Francisco’s public safety needs.
It’s time to modernize and enlarge San Francisco’s police force, although the upgraded version would be more accurately described as a community force. The city needs to pursue three courses of action: (1) bring the police force up to the staffing levels of similarly situated cities; (2) enlarge the scope of what it means to be a police officer, by providing officers with robust training in social work, homelessness intervention, and diversity, equity, and inclusion; and, (3) hire the most diverse community force in the nation to ensure that all San Franciscans feel as though there is someone from their community and background looking out for their well-being.
Right now, a burrito may be delivered faster than a police officer will respond to your call. As long as people feel unsafe, they’ll turn to whoever is offering them the greatest protection at the lowest cost.
Currently, that is not the SFPD.
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