Civilians take on police work in SFPD program
John Coté, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2010
(07-25) 18:25 PDT SAN FRANCISCO — If you find your home or car broken into in San Francisco, sometimes police respond in minutes. Other times it takes hours.
Fingerprints and DNA evidence are often not collected, Police Chief George Gascón said. To do so, a separate crime scene technician has to be called out, which could stretch into the next day.
“When the police get there, you’ve been waiting for three, four, five hours,” Gascón said. “By this time, you’re really fit to be tied.”
That’s all supposed to change under a pioneering and controversial test program included in the city’s new budget that will use civilian investigators to respond to nonviolent crimes like burglaries or car break-ins, freeing up police officers to focus on crimes in progress or dangerous offenders.
It’s designed to improve response times across the board while giving victims better “customer service” and detectives more evidence that can be used to catch criminals – for less than the cost of hiring more officers.
Gascón bills it as more efficient policing, although he’s facing stiff opposition from the city’s police union, which is wary of this latest effort to “civilianize” the department.
“This is really about re-engineering policing,” said Gascón, who started developing the idea about five years ago after learning about civilian police uses in Great Britain. “It’s a program that I believe will increasingly become the model around the country.”
Under a $955,000 pilot project to begin in January, 15 civilian investigators trained to interview victims and witnesses, write reports, take crime scene photos and collect fingerprint and DNA evidence would respond to less-serious cases where the crime occurred some time ago and no perpetrator is believed to be nearby. The civilian investigators would work in one or two of the 10 district stations.
Rather than making victims wait indefinitely, civilian investigators could schedule an appointment over the phone for a set time. Civilian staff wouldn’t be called away for a crime in progress and would also be trained to offer crime prevention tips, Gascón said.
“Their job will be to basically start handling all of those calls that do not require someone with a gun,” he said.
Some national experts say it’s an innovative plan, but critics of similar programs in Britain have raised concerns that civilians could miss important clues and aren’t as accountable as police officers.
nion boss skeptical
The head of San Francisco’s police union maintains that civilians shouldn’t be collecting evidence that could prove pivotal to a case. That would present “a huge chain-of-custody problem” at trial and a ripe target for cross-examination on whether the evidence was properly collected and securely stored, said Gary Delagnes, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association. “I am in no way in support of civilians going out and doing that,” Delagnes said. “Let’s say they go to a 3-day-old burglary, dust for fingerprints, take a report and all of a sudden they find out the guy who committed that burglary was a serial murderer. You’re going to have a civilian who has to testify in court in a murder trial, and it’s going to be a mess.”
Gascón noted that civilian crime scene technicians already testify in major criminal cases and that the new investigators would receive identical training.
“In most major cities around the country, civilians go to court every day and testify about evidence,” Gascón said. “There’s nothing magic about having a police officer testify in court. They do it well because they’re trained for it.”
Solid training, thorough background checks and proper oversight are needed for the program to work, said Police Commissioner Jim Hammer, a former San Francisco prosecutor.
“The devil is in the details,” Hammer said.
oing ‘more with less’
Gascón’s plan comes as cities like Oakland are laying off dozens of officers and stopping active investigations of the types of crimes San Francisco’s new civilian investigators would handle.
“You can actually do more with less,” said San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. “This is a way of achieving a goal in a very, I think, strategic way.”
The program, modeled on one Gascón introduced while chief in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, Ariz., before being hired in San Francisco last year, comes as the chief expects 78 officers to retire this year, positions the city doesn’t have the money to fill. Civilian investigators can be hired with salaries ranging from $47,000 to $57,000 a year, compared with base salaries ranging from $88,000 to $110,000 a year for police officers, according to city figures.
Civilians are also cheaper to equip. In Mesa, the civilian investigators drive unmarked cars and carry handheld radios and pepper spray, rather than carrying guns, wearing bulletproof vests or driving outfitted patrol cars.
Gascón, though, said his plan is not focused on cutting costs.
“This is much broader than simply a response to bad economic times today,” Gascón said. “This is about looking at what policing is going to look like in the next 30, 40, 50 years.”
Departments nationwide have used civilians for years as crime scene technicians or to handle minor accident investigations, or to assist detectives with phone work. But none in the country appear to have combined all the elements of Gascón’s program – particularly having civilians double at taking initial reports and processing a scene for evidence.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Craig Fraser, director of management services for the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington think tank hired to recommend how to modernize San Francisco’s police force before Gascón arrived.
“The whole idea is you preserve the most expensive resources for when you actually need an immediate response,” Fraser said.
In Mesa, some officers initially saw the program as a threat to their jobs but soon called for it to be expanded because the civilians took the minor cases with automatic paperwork, said Sgt. Stephanie Derivan, who oversees the civilian investigators there.
“The officers were excited because the civilian investigators were going to be taking the ‘paper calls,’ as we refer to them,” Derivan said. “We like to hunt down bad guys, chase them and put them in jail.”
The program started in one district in Mesa in June 2009 and is now operating across the city of about 460,000 residents.
During the first year, the district with civilian investigators saw its response time on emergency calls drop 9 percent, compared with a 5 percent reduction citywide, according to Mesa police data.
Civilian investigators contacted 78 percent of the victims they dealt with in less than an hour, Derivan said.
Since the program’s inception, evidence from civilian investigators has generated 138 matches with the national fingerprint database, resulting in 41 arrests, including one man suspected of 16 commercial burglaries, Derivan said.
The program has also generated six hits on the national DNA database, resulting in three arrests, Derivan said.
“We have identified several serial criminals,” she said.
Despite successes in Mesa, Delagnes argues San Francisco has more complex and serious crime.
“In a place like Mesa it might work,” Delagnes said. “Here you have big-city defense attorneys, big-city public defenders.”
He called for retired police officers to fill the new positions.
Previous efforts to increase civilian staff at the Police Department have also met with resistance.
A 1994 Charter amendment requires the city to have 1,971 full-duty officers – a threshold that has rarely been met. Voters approved a ballot measure in 2004 pushed by then-Supervisor Tom Ammiano that allowed more than 150 police jobs to be filled by civilians under the argument it was inefficient to have sworn officers doing clerical work. An opponent at the time, Barbara Meskunas of the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, warned: “If this thing passes, within five years we will have a public safety emergency on our hands.”
Ammiano said that has yet to happen.
“There was institutional resistance to the change,” Ammiano said. “It took some convincing, but now people are seeing it as beneficial, not as a threat.”
E-mail John Coté at email@example.com.