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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

Is San Francisco Re-Funding the Police?

Last summer, Mayor Breed promised to reallocate $120 million from law enforcement to the Black community. That’s no longer the plan.


SF Weekly

By Benjamin Schneider and Veronica Irwin

In July of 2020, local and national media outlets helped spread the word: The mayor of one of the country’s most liberal cities was taking a major step toward defunding the police. “San Francisco Proposes To Shift $120 Million From Police To Tackle Racial Disparities,” one NPR headline read.

One year and a new city budget later, the effort to tackle disparities in the Black community — known as the Dream Keeper Initiative — is proceeding as advertised. The promise to shift funds away from law enforcement? Not so much.

In fact, whether funds ever were reallocated from law enforcement to the degree that Mayor London Breed claimed was always questionable, a matter of statistics and semantics as much as concrete political priorities. But in light of this year’s proposed budget, and confirmation from the mayor’s office, there’s no longer any doubt: Law enforcement spending is going up and the Dream Keeper Initiative is now being paid for through the General Fund.

In other words, the mayor’s pledge to redirect $120 million from law enforcement to the Black community in the wake of last summer’s protest movement turned out to be only partially true.

The activists who mobilized to call on the city to defund the police are not happy — especially given all of the positive media coverage Breed generated when she announced these law enforcement cuts.

“This is something we have to fight over and over again,” says Jamie Chen, an organizer with the group Defund SFPD. “The mayor comes out with these seemingly bold and aggressive plans using the language of social justice, but underneath are really status quo, if not worse, policies.”

The Numbers

Mayor Breed released her proposed budget June 1, beginning a negotiation process with the Board of Supervisors that must be completed by the end of July. The numbers in the budget are not yet final, although they likely represent a fairly close approximation of the final document.

When it comes to defunding police, the proposed budget largely goes in the opposite direction. There continue to be cuts to the San Francisco Police Department, at least for the coming fiscal year, but the Sheriff, District Attorney, Adult and Juvenile Probation departments are all set to see budget increases. Each of these law enforcement departments, including the police, will see increased contributions from the General Fund to make up for decreases in revenue sources such as sales taxes. That’s significant because General Fund contributions were the metric the city budget department used to come up with $120 million in cuts to law enforcement that was advertised last year. But more on that later.

For the proposed 2021-22 budget, the San Francisco Police Department’s allocation will decrease by $6 million, from about $668 million to $661 million. Those cuts can nearly all be attributed to decreased demand for police at the airport. However, in the following fiscal year, the city projects the police budget will increase once again to $689 million. That’s close to the police budget’s all-time high of $692 million in FY 2019-20. By way of comparison, in FY 2010-11, the police budget weighed in at $445 million.

The Sheriff’s budget is increasing by $25 million from the last fiscal year, up to about $270 million. The District Attorney’s budget is increasing by $6 million, and the probation departments are seeing their budgets increase by millions as well, despite their comparatively smaller size. All told, General Fund spending on law enforcement in this year’s proposed budget is about $50 million greater than last year’s adopted budget projection for this year.

At least some of the increased funding for law enforcement is designed to yield outcomes that many progressive activists would appreciate. As it returns to pre-COVID staffing levels, the office of District Attorney Chesa Boudin plans to use resources to reduce racial disparities in prosecution and expand diversionary programs as an alternative to incarceration. The Sheriff has funds earmarked to create a database for body camera footage. The police budget includes funding for three new staff positions to increase the department’s transparency and accountability. This year’s budget also notes that 70 percent of police recruits in the last three years have been people of color.

The city’s Street Crisis Response Teams, which were designed to reduce the need for police to respond to homelessness, mental health, and drug-related problems, are not being funded through any law enforcement agency.

Fuzzy Math

In this year’s proposed budget, Breed reiterates the city’s commitment to the Dream Keeper Initiative, a $120 investment in various programs designed to help the Black community. Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton, who collaborated with the mayor on the initiative, called it “a first step towards true reparations for the Black community here in San Francisco,” in a February press release.

However, unlike last year’s budget proposal — where the mayor wrote in the executive summary, “My budget redirects $120 million over the next two years from law enforcement to the African American community,” along with similar declarations in several other places — this year’s budget largely glosses over where the Dream Keeper funds come from.

This year’s budget makes only one mention of “reinvest[ing] funds from law enforcement into San Francisco’s Black and African American community” — on page 240. Nowhere does this year’s budget indicate that all or even most of the Dream Keeper money is coming from cuts to law enforcement.

Andy Lynch, Breed’s press director, confirmed in an email that the city is changing course, increasing funds for law enforcement while funding the Dream Keeper Initiative through the General Fund.

“Last year, we reduced General Fund support to law enforcement departments, which allowed for these initiatives [the Dream Keeper Initiative] to be created and funded, while also closing a projected $1.5 billion budget shortfall,” Lynch wrote in an email. “We’re continuing the funding for the Dream Keeper programs through the General Fund in this budget proposal.”

Lynch added: “Many departments, including law enforcement departments, have an increased budget this year compared to last year as revenues are projected to increase as the City benefits from additional state and federal support.”

Even last year, when the Dream Keeper Initiative and corresponding law enforcement budget cuts were announced and widely reported on in the media, there were major questions as to how the mayor’s budget office arrived at that $120 million figure. But most media coverage ignored the citywide budget cuts that were taking place at the same time, and the statistical oddities that come from the city’s two-year budget planning cycle. Media outlets also widely reported that the city would be making $80 million in cuts to the police department, and $40 million in cuts to the sheriff’s department, adding up to $120 million over two years. In fact, cuts to those two departments were always slated to be lower, with the difference accounted for by cuts to the District Attorney and the Juvenile Probation Department.

Here’s how the number-crunching worked: Every summer, the budget for the upcoming fiscal year is finalized by the Board of Supervisors and the mayor, while the budget for the following year is “adopted,” providing a blueprint for future spending. For instance, the proposed budget released June 1 contains figures for FY 21-22 and FY 22-23. By the end of the summer, the city will have a final budget for FY 21-22 and an “adopted,” planned budget for FY 22-23.

The approximately $120 million in cuts to law enforcement for the 2020-21/ 2021-22 two-year budget cycle were based on the projected budget for 2020-21 “adopted” the year prior. Law enforcement agencies — Police, Sheriff, District Attorney, and Juvenile Probation — were slated to receive $860 million in General Fund contributions in 2020-21, but last summer, the mayor’s proposed budget amended that figure to $797 million, representing a decrease of $63 million. Extending those cuts for the following fiscal year then brings you into the ballpark of that $120 million figure. Using the finalized 2019-20 budget as a baseline, which was then the most recent budget to actually get spent, the mayor’s proposed cuts to law enforcement for the following year added up to $30 million.

“It’s been highly confusing,” Supervisor Dean Preston said of the plan at a budget meeting on Aug. 14, 2020. Preston added that when he was director of the nonprofit Tenants Together, that kind of arithmetic wouldn’t fly. “If we had a million dollar budget, and my board came to me and said they want to reduce the budget by 10 percent, I wouldn’t be saying we previously last year approved a future budget that would go up 100,000, so actually if we just wipe that out we’ve met your cut.”

The cuts to law enforcement announced last year also came in the context of cuts across the city budget as San Francisco dealt with the economic fallout of COVID-19. Ultimately, the decrease in General Fund spending on law enforcement in the final budget was only one percent greater than the decrease in the General Fund overall.

“It was extremely frustrating to see [Mayor Breed] be able to come out with this problematic budget, and be able to control the narrative and say, look, I am defunding law enforcement by $120 million and reinvesting in the Black community, when the folks who are actually looking at the numbers saw that this was almost a complete fallacy,” Defund SFPD’s Chen says.

While the mayor’s office now admits that decreases in law enforcement spending are no longer funding the Dream Keeper Initiative, it nonetheless looks like the city will come close to reducing General Fund contributions to law enforcement by $120 million over two years, as compared to the previously adopted FY 20-21 baseline. In last year’s final budget, General Fund spending on law enforcement declined $76.1 million compared to that baseline, following further cuts to the mayor’s proposed budget decrease of $63.5 million from the Board of Supervisors. Despite increasing significantly from last year’s projections, the General Fund contributions for law enforcement in this year’s proposed budget are still $33.8 million below that baseline.

That means over the two year budget period, the city reduced law enforcement spending to the tune of $110 million. As the budget process continues, supervisors will have the opportunity to propose further cuts that could get closer to $120 million, like they did last year.

But it’s important to recall that all of these figures live in the methodological universe set up by the mayor and her staff. If you compare General Fund contributions for law enforcement in this year’s proposed budget to FY 19-20, the baseline that Preston said would have been a more appropriate point of comparison, the net decline is less than $1 million. By FY 22-23, the General Fund contribution to law enforcement is expected to be nearly identical — at about $860 million — to the previously adopted budget for FY 20-21, the starting point for the $120 million in cuts.

In hindsight, the cuts to law enforcement from last year really did seem to be largely about balancing the budget, as Lynch indicated. With a brighter fiscal picture ahead, the city is headed right back to where it started before last summer’s protest movement, at least when it comes to law enforcement spending.

Dream Keepers

No matter where the money is coming from, the $120 million Dream Keeper Initiative is really happening.

The Human Rights Commission led approximately 60 meetings with community members to determine how the funds for the Dream Keeper Initiative should be spent, according to Sheryl Davis, executive director of the HRC. “The community has been engaged, typically the Black community, in designing and helping to identify where to allocate funds. We talked a lot about which departments they trusted and which they didn’t. And it’s been an interesting conversation with folks over the last year.”

Initially, the funds were going to be distributed through the Department of Public Health, the Human Rights Commission, and the Office of Workforce and Economic Development (OEWD). But through the public outreach process, allocations were added to the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, the Department of Children, Youth and Families and the Office of Early Care and Education. Davis and Lynch confirmed the Dream Keeper Initiative funds for this fiscal year and next add up to $120 million, although some of the money may be spent over multiple years.

Programs that will get funding through the Dream Keeper Initiative include a basic income program through the OEWD, preschool programs, and new funds for small businesses, housing, and health care — all specifically targeting the Black community. Davis says more information on these programs will be forthcoming soon.

While Chen of Defund SFPD finds some of the Dream Keeper Initiative’s programs “valuable,” he said he is disappointed it does not specifically include efforts to reduce police violence or community contact with police.

Chen and likeminded activists pledge to continue beating the defund-the-police drum, even as city politics moves away from their direction. “Now our work is a little more broad and goes toward public education, organizing our neighbors and just creating community and really getting people to understand what public safety looks like without policing.”

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