An seismically unfit and abandoned elementary school serves as the training facility for the San Francisco Police Department. An academy class (before social distancing) had to sit on the floor of the former school’s gym/auditorium. Photo credit: Rachael Garner/San Francisco Examiner

We Can’t Stop Investing In Public Safety

By Joel P. Engardio

San Francisco’s police department trains in a seismically unfit school near Diamond Heights that students abandoned long ago. At peak times the building holds 150 officers who risk injury if it collapses in an earthquake. A modern facility would be significantly safer, but will anyone agree to pay for it in today’s “defund the police” political climate?

Meanwhile, the fire department’s outdated training facility on Treasure Island is slated to be torn down for a new housing development. An alternate location must be found soon. While no one is protesting firefighters, City Hall’s projected $2.5 billion deficit will make it difficult to build an expensive new facility for them.

That’s why it makes practical and fiscal sense to construct a joint police and fire training facility. One combined state-of-the-art building would be cost-effective and efficient.

It would encourage collaboration between public safety departments that must work together to handle emergencies. Police officers, firefighters and paramedics each play equally important roles as first responders when there is a mass shooting, terrorist attack or natural disaster.

This is a critical moment when both our police and fire training centers are inadequate and need replacing. There will be resistance to letting the police department have anything new and only giving the fire department a suitable place to train is not prudent.

We should consider the possibility that including the police in a combined public safety facility could have the benefit of recruiting and training better police.

Why we still need police
There is a national debate about police reform. Black people were wrongly killed by police and Black lives matter. The anger that we see nationwide is justified and changes have to be made.

Many protesters use the term “defund the police,” which has many different meanings. I do not believe in a literal defunding or abolishing of the police. I agree with Governor Newsom and Joe Biden who refer to “reimagining” the police.

We still need police to protect the public. When crime happens, we can’t forget about the victims.

Crimes like burglaries and homicide went up in San Francisco while the city was sheltering in place. And that was supposed to be a quiet time. The FBI says San Francisco has one of the highest property crime rates among large U.S. cities.

I help lead a victim’s rights group called Stop Crime SF. We want officials to take crime seriously. Especially in neighborhoods that have been long-ignored, where immigrant communities are often vulnerable to crime. We want victims to be heard.

A woman who owns a Vietnamese restaurant near City Hall was robbed at lunchtime earlier this year.

The Chronicle reported that she was traumatized by the robbery. She was crying and sobbing as she waited for the police to show up. She had to wait two hours because our police officers are stretched thin.

City Hall commissioned a study on police staffing earlier this year. It said a city our size should have at least 200 more police officers than we currently have.

If crime is up, if our police staffing is low and if people are calling for even less police, how are we going to be safe?

What reimagining the police looks like
Looking at the data helps explain what Governor Newsom and Joe Biden are talking about when they say we should “reimagine” the police.

Every year, San Francisco police officers go on tens of thousands of calls for things like noise complaints, Muni inspections and wellness checks on homeless and mentally ill people.

We don’t need police with guns to answer those calls. There are better people for the job, like social workers.

Taking police off those calls will let officers put their focus on the most serious and dangerous crimes. Right now, the horrible crime of rape is only solved 20 percent of the time. The clearance rates for assault and human trafficking are less than 40 percent.

We need to make sure we have enough police to solve these serious crimes — and that they’re not distracted going on unnecessary calls.

We should recruit new police officers from diverse communities. And we should only employ police officers who will serve at the highest standard.

Compared to other cities, San Francisco’s police department is already headed in the right direction. Our police conduct policies are more strict than most cities, which contributed to a 47 percent decline in use of force since 2016. The New York Times even mentioned San Francisco as a city “where police reform has worked.”

There is still room for improvement and a proper training facility is vital to making that happen. That’s why reimagining police requires investment, not defunding.

The Mercy High School solution
If we can find the political will to build a combined police and fire training facility, the next big question is where to put it?

The closure of Mercy High School on San Francisco’s westside was sad news for generations of students who attended the all-girls Catholic school since 1952. Perhaps we can make the most of the situation by repurposing the campus as a new police and fire training facility.

The school sits on six acres, which could be just enough space. Whether residents want it to become a public safety training site or not, the reality is such a rare swath of open land will be highly sought after by housing developers already transforming the area.

Mercy is across the street from Stonestown Mall, which seeks to rebuild its own 42 acres with a mix of housing, restaurants and entertainment that can survive in the age of Amazon. And Mercy is one Muni train stop from Parkmerced, which expects to break ground on thousands of new housing units.

Mercy is also adjacent to the Lakeside neighborhood of single-family homes. The redevelopment at nearby Stonestown and Parkmerced is a lot of change for residents to absorb. Will they accept another major housing development right next door?

They might view turning the Mercy campus into a joint police and fire training facility as a more useful and pragmatic option. It could even include some first responder housing that Lakeside residents would not object to.

Adding some affordable housing on the Mercy site for the families of police officers and firefighters would help solve another important safety issue. Many of our first responders no longer live in San Francisco because it’s too expensive. They commute long distances over highways and bridges that will be damaged after a big earthquake, making it difficult to get back into the city to do their jobs.

First responder families are middle-income families, which San Francisco desperately needs. We’ve lost too many and we can’t be a functioning city without them.

If Mercy High School has to close, its legacy of serving the community can be honored by using the land for another noble purpose. Building a new public safety training facility with some first responder housing solves a number of problems facing San Francisco.

Joel Engardio is a candidate for supervisor on San Francisco’s westside in District 7. Learn more about his views on local issues at engardio.com/issues

Originally published at https://www.engardio.com on July 23, 2020.

Forward-thinking + pragmatic Democrat, civil liberties advocate, award-winning journalist, Westside SF homeowner. My local views at www.engardio.com/issues