During the late 1990s I occasionally sat in on a poker game at a friend's house in Fairfield, a suburb 47 miles northeast of San Francisco. Regulars included news hacks, a photographer, and a cop with the San Francisco Police Department. He would regale us with stories about how, when he was an officer in smalltown Texas, he would banish vagrants by putting them in railroad boxcars and padlocking the door. He expressed alarm that I lived near the Golden Gate Park Panhandle, where the "bums" were. Once, he announced a planned move from Fairfield to Vacaville to further distance his family from the "scum" of San Francisco.
I recalled that card-table bravado last month when I learned of a stealth initiative by San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón to stop recruiting potential police cadets from San Francisco high schools, junior colleges, and community fairs. The department will instead replenish its ranks with already-sworn police officers, mostly from other Bay Area departments. For the foreseeable future, San Francisco has canceled full-term police academy classes. A police department that is already composed of 76 percent out-of-town officers will probably become even more unbalanced.
The idea is to save money. But it seems ironic that, just as the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is considering controversial legislation to fine contractors doing business with the city if they don't hire enough local workers, the city seems to be abandoning a local hiring policy that actually makes sense. Police officers, unlike bricklayers or roofers, might actually do a better job if they know the community they're working in.
"What kind of rank-and-file police department do we want?" asks Don Casper, a member of the San Francisco Civil Service Commission, which recently approved a rule clearing the way for the SFPD to refocus recruitment toward out-of-towners. "Is it a department whose members have ties to one or more of San Francisco's communities?"
Or one that doesn't?
While the San Francisco Police Department was moving away from local hiring, the board of supervisors was moving in the other direction with a costly proposal to fine construction firms who fail to hire 50 percent local residents on city-funded projects.
"We're just saying there should be more San Franciscans, who are making investments with our tax dollars, who have been struggling with unemployment," said Supervisor John Avalos, who is sponsoring the legislation.
A blanket local hiring law sounds great at first — let's hear it for the home team! — but not after counting the costs.
Layoffs to make room for local workers will just push unemployment over the bridges and down the peninsula – and possibly back to San Francisco if our law inspires copycats in nearby cities. Companies unable or unwilling to fire and rehire workers, such as small, family-run, minority-owned companies, simply won't bid on government contracts. Fewer bidders will result in higher construction prices for the city and taxpayers.
Gascón's money-saving initiative is also misguided. That's because policing is different than pile driving. Deep local connections can help officers understand and fight local crime. Eliminating local recruitment could dilute city efforts to step up community policing, because fewer officers will have roots in the city. And it could widen the gulf between police and local ethnic and cultural communities.
Let's start with the pitfalls of Avalos' local hiring bill. City contracting rules already encourage builders to voluntarily hire at least 50 percent local workers. The idea was that they would include people belonging to minority ethnic and cultural groups, but a recent study showed contractors weren't complying. Avalos' proposal would add penalties for noncompliance.
But Doug Chan, a member of the city's human rights commission, which enforces rules directing government contracts to local small businesses, says Avalos' proposed ordinance could harm small minority contractors.
Doing special hiring for a single project is the kind of investment a large, regionally prominent company might make — and then pass the extra cost along to taxpayers. A local, family-owned construction business, whose work is typically building nongovernment projects, is less likely to fire staff just to get a city job. The ironic result could be to squeeze out local companies. "Local business enterprises are employers of first resort for locals," Chan says.
Some kinds of construction workers are scarce in San Francisco, making a local hire requirement even more costly. According to a recent city-commissioned analysis of the Bay Area construction industry, Pile Drivers Local 34 had only one worker living in San Francisco, as did Roofers Local 40 and Carpet, Linoleum, and Soft Tile Workers Local 12.
The combination of reduced competition and higher personnel costs will result in more San Francisco taxpayer money spent on bridges, buildings, and roads — and less spent on other important things.
Local hiring isn't a bust, though, if local roots improve employee performance. Pile driving isn't that type of job. Police work is. Imagine a Cantonese-speaking kid in the Sunset who becomes a beat cop with a keen ear for gossip about gangs extorting local businesses.
"In language minority communities, this is not an insignificant issue," Chan says. "In many parts of San Francisco, conversational ability in Chinese and Spanish is absolutely necessary to collect street intelligence, and to understand needs of residents."
Think of a Bayview native whose ability to practice community policing might be enhanced by lifelong ties to southeastern San Francisco churches, extended families, businesses, and clubs. Ending local police recruiting "defeats the urgent need for us to have police who live in a certain neighborhood to police that neighborhood," Bayview police watchdog Mesha Irizarry says.
In January, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi successfully sponsored a bill putting police vocational training programs in local high schools and junior colleges. The idea was to produce more locally rooted officers, a goal Gascón recently undermined.
On Aug. 19, the city's Department of Human Resources produced a memo, obtained through a public records request, saying the police department wanted the option to recruit "only applicants who satisfy the requirements of the Police Department's Lateral Police Officer Hiring Program," which involves officers from out-of-town departments. The latest batch hailed from the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety, and the Novato Police Department.
Gascón declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed. But he has apparently been giving lip service to local hiring. Rescinding local recruitment "comes despite actions by Chief Gascón, and others including the mayor, that commit to more recruitment of San Franciscans," Mirkarimi says.
Gascón apparently told Avalos something similar. "In my conversations with the police chief, I've heard him say he'd like to have a stronger pathway to have local residents in the police force," Avalos recalls. "He said it fits in with his ideas around community policing."
Perhaps with money saved by ditching Avalos' expensive bill, the city should help the chief remain true to his word.