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Will SF Voters Expand Police Powers in This Election?

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An SFPD cruiser. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

This March, the politics of crime in San Francisco can be found up and down the ballot, from judicial races to local ballot measures. 

KQED’s Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez joins us to unpack Proposition E, a measure put forward by Mayor London Breed that would expand the power of the San Francisco Police Department.


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Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

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Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, and welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. Well, it’s no secret that people are worried about crime and safety in San Francisco, even though the data doesn’t really prove that crime has gotten worse. Still, Mayor London Breed is on a mission to prove she’s doing something about it. And to do that, she put some propositions on the ballot for San Francisco voters to decide on this March, including prop E, which would dramatically change how police operate in the city.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: When people ask me to explain Prop E, I’m like, well, how long do you have?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: A whole episode worth the time, Joe. Today, KQED politics reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: breaks down San Francisco’s Prop E. Who’s for it, who’s against it, and why so many people are spending big money on it.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Crime is pretty much top of every voter’s mind right now. It is permeating nearly every ballot measure, nearly every elected office this March or in this coming race in November in San Francisco. And I would say even broadly.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Joe, we’re mostly going to talk about one of the most sweeping of these propositions on the ballot, prop E. But I do want to talk broadly about all of them. First, what is the sort of range of things that these propositions would do?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: You ready? Because we’re going to go through the alphabet soup. So prop B is about the number of police we have in San Francisco. We have about 1500 police officers right now, and prop B aims to increase that number. But it ties increasing that number to a future tax measure. Prop F is also comes with Mayor London breed and prop F is about mandating drug treatment for people that the city suspects are doing drugs who are receiving benefits from the city.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: This would allow the city to say, hey, we think you’re doing drugs, you should go get treatment. And if they don’t, then they could be kicked off that assistance. And that could also mean rental assistance. Those are all straight forward compared to prop E, because prop E isn’t one thing about the cops. It is a grab bag of things that Mayor London Breed and some others want to see changed to help police do their jobs as the public increasingly worries about public safety.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, yeah. Let’s dive into the details. I know that there are four main components to prop E. What are those, Joe?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Sure. So at a high level, those components are use of force reporting. So paperwork around when cops use force, the powers of the police commission, public surveillance and the ability for police officers to go on car chases and when and how?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: How dramatic of a shift would probably make in how Sfpd operates currently. And let’s let’s maybe take them one by one, starting with police chases.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Police have in the past restricted, and the police commission has restricted how fast a police can go in San Francisco and when they can go on these car chases, essentially. And that’s for very good reason. It’s because car chases are dangerous. Where we are now is that there has to be a threat to life. But this proposition would allow police to make pursuits for some lower level offenses, like robberies, for instance.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: The argument being that people who are, say, robbing a, a jewelry store know that if they can get in the car and they’re not an immediate threat to life, they know that they can speed away and not be pursued. So we may see a lot more of these because the bars lowered. Police can make a chase if there are lower level offenses like robberies, even if there isn’t a threat to life. And that is a is a fundamental change.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: What about the changes that probably would make to how officers report about use of force? Help me understand that one.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: So right now, police officers need to file paperwork whenever they use force in an interaction with the suspect. If prop E were to pass, the use of force documentation will only happen if someone is injured or a firearm was pointed directly at them. And what they will do instead is use your body camera footage. And so they say, okay, well there is force used.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Well it doesn’t rise to the level of taking documentation down, but we will log your body camera footage and that will serve as our documentation of the incident. And the argument being that, you know, we’re in a staffing shortage for police. When they do use force, they are stuck behind a desk writing paperwork, and this may free them up to actually be out there on the streets, helping to prevent crime merely with their presence.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And what about the issue of surveillance, Joe? How dramatic of a shift would probably make in how Sfpd currently surveil the public?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Oh, completely dramatically so. Right now, the San Francisco Police Department is very limited in how they can access surveillance. They have to ask permission of businesses to obtain surveillance footage. They can’t place their own cameras in the city. A lot of that was curtailed by the Board of Supervisors, who really were in particular worried about police use of facial recognition technology and enhanced surveillance and really want to limit police’s ability to do mass surveillance of San Franciscans.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: But this would help them circumvent that. Essentially, Police Chief Bill Scott could choose to, put up surveillance cameras throughout the city. They could employ, different surveillance technologies. They could even have drones under prop E.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And then, Joe, there is these proposed changes to the police commission. How exactly would probably change how this really citizen oversight body, the police Commission, functions. Now.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: This one is probably the most fundamental change to how police operate in San Francisco. Essentially, in a nutshell, the police commission can make policies that dictate how the police operate. But this change under prop is huge, because essentially what would happen is when the police commission wants to pass a policy, they have to go have a public meeting at every police station in San Francisco in order to make that happen.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: And the only person who can waive that process is the police chief himself. That gives the police department an incredible ability to stymie, slow down, and gum up the process of passing policies that they don’t like, and especially the mayor. Because if the mayor doesn’t agree with the policy, the mayor can ask the police chief to gum up that process and slow it down for the, police commission.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming up, why London Breed put prop E on the ballot and the arguments against it. Stay with us.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: This was, as we mentioned earlier, mayor London Breeds idea to put property on the ballot. How does she explain her rationale behind this proposition?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: When London Breed announced this proposition in October. She really laid out her philosophy that we needed to give the police department expanded powers to address what she sees and the electorate sees as a public safety crisis in San Francisco, even if the data doesn’t bear that out.

Mayor London Breed: So many of us know that numbers mean nothing when you feel unsafe, when there’s a perception of issues around safety.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: She’s responding to the electorate who is angry and dissatisfied, and that is her viewpoint of why property is needed.

Mayor London Breed: That doesn’t mean we walk away from our values. It just means we have another tool to help combat the crime that is terrorizing San Francisco.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Poll after poll after poll, and you have to take them as a snapshot in time. They’re not necessarily predictive of an election, but poll after poll show Mayor London breeds numbers are down. People don’t believe the city is going in the right direction. And right now the person that they’re laying that on is the mayor. I mean, if you just roll back two years ago, that person was Chase a Boudin, the former district attorney who was ousted in a recall.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: And that anger and frustration is like a tide. And that tide rolled over Chesa Boudin. And now that tide is coming for mayor London breed. And that’s what we’re really seeing in the polls. People are dissatisfied with the state of San Francisco, and they are holding the mayor accountable for it.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Who else is supporting prop E? Joe, if you like? There were a lot of moderate politicians standing behind London Breed at that press conference.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Another person who spoke in favor of prop E is Nancy Tung.

Nancy Tung Prop E is one of those things, which just makes sense.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: She’s an assistant district attorney, but she’s also really well known in the Chinese community for her prior run for the district attorney’s office and for her prominence on the San Francisco Democratic Party board.

Nancy Tung While the mayor is doing her best to try to fill the ranks in the police department, we still have to protect public safety. We have to do more with less. And the way we do that is to take off restrictions from the police department and then also allow them to use technology to help them in their jobs.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Supervisor Matt Dorsey, and unsurprisingly, is, backing prop used to work for the police department as a head of communications, I should say. But you know other groups as well. Stop Crime Action, which has been a really influential group lately. The San Francisco Police Officers Association, which is the union representing police officers, is backing prop E. Annie Chung, who is the president and CEO of Self-Help for the elderly.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: She has a lot of standing in, the Chinese community in San Francisco. She’s been a decades long advocate for them, is rallying people to prop E, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. And, you know, you have to imagine a lot of restaurants and bars are kind of tired of having to deal with, crime and break ins. So they’re behind it. And that’s also why the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations behind it.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Who are like the organizations, the politicians who are standing out against prop E.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: It should be no surprise that a lot of the organizations that push for controls on police surveillance are against property. That includes the ACLU of Northern California. That includes the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They’re out in front, opposing property. And just that this ACLU rally goes out this past week, mayoral candidate Ahsha Safaí was there, but also members of the police commission who don’t want to see the power of the police commission curtailed.

Kevin Benedicto: The other side might have the money, but I think we have the people on our side.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: So Kevin Benedicto is a member of the San Francisco Police Commission. He was appointed in 2022. And he had this to say about why he’s opposing.

Kevin Benedicto: Probably it lowers safeguards and that allows the department to cut corners and lower safeguards when it comes to use of force, which is very dangerous. It lowers safeguards when it comes to surveillance technologies. It lowers safeguards when it comes to high speed, dangerous vehicle pursuits. And we have serious public safety issues in San Francisco. Just lowering safeguards across the board is not going to do it.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: So I was at the ACLU press conference. One compelling story came from Ciara Keegean, a 25 year old San Franciscan who works in the East Bay.

Ciara Keegean: Two months ago, I was in a horrible car accident caused by the Sfpd.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: And she was driving home from work one evening when she came in a head on collision with a suspect being chased by police.

Ciara Keegean: My family and I later requested the police report, and, found out that the car had been involved in an armed mugging in downtown San Francisco. The police spiked the tires before it got onto the bridge, and chased the car at up to 80mph across the bridge into Oakland, where it finally hit me.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: She was hospitalized after she had some soft tissue injuries. She has had a hard time at work. She’s going through therapy. She’s trying to get past the trauma of what she went through.

Ciara Keegean: When the car hit me. I was on handsfree speakerphone, talking to my boyfriend. And the only thing he heard was my screams and the sirens of police cars. I was transported…

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: She was able to tell me that she opposes Prop E because she doesn’t want other people to go what she went through.

Ciara Keegean: this proposition will make San Franciscans less safe and endangered my lives. And it will endanger other San Franciscans.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: People against Prop E are worried that more police chases will lead to more deaths and more injuries on San Francisco streets. And perhaps chiefly, they’re worried that the curtailing of the power of the citizen led police commission will lead to fewer police policies that keep them on the right side of criminal justice reform.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I do also want to ask you about campaign spending. How much money has been spent on prop E and who’s been spending it in opposition?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: “No on E” has raised about $200,000. And that’s mostly raised by the ACLU. The yes on E! Campaign, committee that is tied to Mayor London breed has raised $750,000 at this point. The Lori for prop e campaign that’s by Miranda Breed’s opponent, Daniel Lurie. The Levi Strauss ER and nonprofit CEO raised about $607,000. So that’s a combined about a $1.3 million for property.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And is that a lot of money for a local ballot measure?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: That is a metric ton of money for a local ballot measure. Yes. Some of the biggest funders of the yes on the campaign are Ron Conway, the angel investor and godfather of Silicon Valley, who has backed a lot of large companies. The ripple CEO Chris Larsen, is backing us on E! Together, they’ve dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars. Into a local races. It is a lot of money, and there’s a lot of money from tech folks who, you know, are arguing a political stance.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: They are arguing for less citizen oversight over police, for more and expanded police powers. And really, when you see the amount of the people backing it, it’s really a bevy of people who are supporters of London Breed and who are right now working to kind of shift the balance of power in San Francisco towards more moderate Democrats and away from progressives.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, do we have a sense of how good of a chance prop E might have at passing, do we know?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: A lot of polling shows San Franciscans fed up with crime and fed up with homelessness and all sorts of issues around public safety. So, you know, looking at that sentiment and what I’m hearing from sources who I interview out there about the sentiment around public safety, I think it’s a pretty sure bet that anything that says police on the ballot will get a really big yes.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Seems like even a shift from how folks are feeling in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, we have to question that shift in light of the data, right? The data does show a more nuanced picture of crime in San Francisco. And that shows a more nuanced picture of crime in California. You know, some great reporting by colleagues here, KQED, including Marisa Lagos, has shown that, you know, crime is up in other places, including with more Republican leaning district attorneys and leadership.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: So is it something that is happening at the local level and things we’re doing here, or is the perception of crime tied more around media reporting what we’re seeing on social media, and when does that end? When will we ever stop being scared for public safety? And when does that stop driving our politics? Because right now it’s driving our politics pretty heavily.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: No amount of impact on the streets has made us feel safer. And that’s what you hear a lot. It’s not really about the data, it’s about how people feel. But what will change that? What will change how people feel? And that’s an answer I don’t think anyone has right now.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Joe, thank you so much.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Thank you so much.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, a politics reporter for KQED. By the way, KQED has got a pretty comprehensive voter guide online with information about both state and local races across all nine Bay area counties. Just go to KQED.org/VoterGuide. This 55 minute conversation with Joe was cut down and edited by producer Maria Esquinca. Alan Montecillo is our senior editor, who scored this episode and added all the tape. Music courtesy of First Come Music Audio Network and Bluedot sessions.

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Thanks as well to Juan Carlos Lara and any throughout the rest of our podcast team here at KQED includes Jen Chien, our Director of podcasts, Katie Sprenger, our podcast operations manager, Cesar Saldana, our podcast engagement producer, and Maha Sanad, our podcast Engagement Intern. The basic production of listener supported KQED in San Francisco. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, thanks for listening. Happy voting ya’ll.

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