Edward Siu, president of the Chinatown Merchants United Association, stands on a busy corner of Stockton Street in San Francisco's Chinatown neighborhood on Sept. 13, 2023. He says SFPD command turnover is so fast that he can't remember all the names of the police leaders he's given community tours to. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Ed Siu is a pro at giving Central Station police captains tours of Chinatown.
In San Francisco, district police captains serve as public figures and tacticians for clusters of neighborhoods. Central Station, a six-story gray slab at the edge of North Beach, oversees Chinatown as well as the Financial District, Fisherman’s Wharf, Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill and Russian Hill.
Hoping to ensure captains learn the safety needs of Chinatown merchants, Siu will walk them down bustling Stockton Street, jockeying between thick crowds of shoppers to arrive at the door of New Golden Daisy, one of those restaurants with ducks hanging in the window.
Siu has led tours for so many new police leaders that he can’t remember all of their names. The expansion of the San Francisco Police Department’s command staff has led to high turnover among captains.
“I mention it to the captains, the turnover is too fast,” said Siu, who has owned a Chinatown travel agency for more than four decades. “They should help us by knowing about Chinatown and the district.”
It’s not just a Central Station dilemma. Anecdotally, some San Francisco supervisors have long complained of turnover among station police captains, saying that as soon as they’ve got good footing in a neighborhood they’re already out the door, oftentimes by way of promotion.
Eight captains have led Central Station in the past 11 years, an average of just over a year per captain. The swelling of SFPD’s leadership has also led to the swelling of salaries and pensions. According to SFPD data, the command staff’s total salary was just over $3 million in 2016, but is projected to grow to $7.5 million by 2025.
Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who represents neighborhoods served by Central Station, wants to stop the speedy promotions by eliminating four positions in the upper echelons of SFPD, winnowing its size and redirecting funds to pay for eight police officers to walk city beats. Peskin’s budget adjustment is set to be considered at a Board of Supervisors Budget & Appropriations Committee hearing on Wednesday.
“A top-heavy, bloated command staff has grown exponentially in recent years,” Peskin told KQED. “This is something that I think makes policy sense. It makes economic sense and will lead to better policing in San Francisco.”
While the move sounds like a simple budget cut, it may significantly hamper police reform efforts in San Francisco, Chief Bill Scott said at an August Board of Supervisors meeting. He admitted SFPD had staffing problems, but said the force needs administrative support as it balances the competing demands of reform and public safety concerns in the Tenderloin and surrounding neighborhoods.
He also said that goes for many of the newer command staff roles, arguing to Peskin that the department can’t just lop off a swath of commanders without consequences to that work.
Decades ago, there were only a handful of people who reported directly to the chief, according to Jim Wunderman, the CEO of the Bay Area Council, a nonprofit representing business interests across the region. Wunderman served in a number of roles in then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s administration and as chief of staff for Mayor Frank Jordan, a former chief of police.
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many police captains stayed at that rank longer, even until retirement. But Wunderman recalled when Feinstein was first urged to expand the command.
“Dianne’s first reaction to it was pretty negative,” he said. “Why do we want to add more administrative staff? Don’t we want to put more cops out in the stations where crime actually occurs?”
Eventually, Feinstein was convinced. Jordan was promoted in 1978 from lieutenant to a newly created commander position. Three decades later, there are 16 sworn members of SFPD’s command staff: two assistant chiefs, five deputy chiefs and nine commanders.
Wunderman said that when there’s leadership bloat “in any organization, whether it’s business or government for that matter, you end up with a loss of accountability. There’s too many people trying to talk to too many people and nothing gets done.”
Some former Central Station captains include David Lazar, who now serves as an assistant chief and Julian Ng, who is now a deputy chief. Paul Yep is commander of the administration bureau and Garret Tom, who was the Central Station captain 10 years ago, is retired.
“I can tell you as a district supervisor for most of the last quarter century that my go-to person on virtually a daily basis is the captain of Central Station,” Peskin said. “And we haven’t had a captain at all for two months, until last week, and had an acting captain for almost two years before that because of the misplaced priorities of the leadership of the department.”
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And just like station captains, most command staff don’t stay in their roles for long, either. Data shows they don’t spend longer than three years in the positions before they’re promoted or retire. San Francisco’s pension liability for SFPD command staff has grown from under $100,000 a month in 2017 to a monthly cost of nearly $500,000 just this year.
“You don’t want a revolving door” of top staff, Peskin said. “A revolving door is pension spiking, and yes, there is some of that.”
Lily Lo, the founder of BeChinatown, a group that helps small businesses in the neighborhood, would like to see funding redirected to beat cops in Chinatown and other neighborhoods.
“It’s good to have more police patrolling,” she said.
As for Chief Scott’s concerns over implementing hard-won police reforms, retired Judge LaDoris Cordell wonders if some roles could be taken on by less-expensive civilian staff. From 2010-2015, Cordell served as an independent police auditor for San José, a civilian position. That police auditor’s job was to make recommendations to the chief, like creating a new policy on chokeholds. In 2015, she served on the Blue Ribbon Panel that made reform recommendations to SFPD after its racist texting scandal.
While implementing reforms is important, a strong part of creating better bonds between police and Black and brown communities is true community policing, Cordell said. A key recommendation to SFPD by the Department of Justice was to craft a strategic plan for community policing. SFPD’s website shows this goal is still “in progress.”
That was also a recommendation of the Blue Ribbon Panel Cordell served on, which noted that community members desired (PDF) police to serve “long-term assignments in a community to get to know and build trust with residents.”
People “get to know them, then they get to trust them,” Cordell said. “And then, when issues come up regarding crime, they’re willing to go and talk to these officers because the officers have gotten to know them. And that is the key.”
According to Cordell, it’s not impossible for a police force to balance promotions and to provide longevity for neighborhoods. Cordell said SFPD may need to think more creatively, like offering incentive pay or other benefits if police stay in communities longer.
“I don’t know that any of these are contradictory. They can all be done,” she said. “But it’s hard to do it in a system that says your best reward is being promoted and moving up as fast as you can.”
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