Police

Defund the Police? Here’s What’s Actually Possible in San Diego

Making deep police cuts, as many locals have demanded, would be incredibly tough thanks to labor contracts, spending restrictions and the most powerful reason of all: a lack of political will at the highest levels of city government.

defund san diego police
Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

Rethinking San Diego is a series exploring new approaches to some of San Diego’s biggest policies, plans and dilemmas.

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As cities like Los Angeles and New York cut millions in police funding in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation over the summer, San Diego increased police funding this year, demonstrating how hard it’s been for the defund the police movement to gain traction here.

Now, as a newly elected Democratic mayor and majority-Democrat City Council take over the reins of a city facing fiscal distress, dramatic police cuts – like the $100 million demanded by droves of residents during the June budget talks – face both practical and political impediments in the short- and long-term.

In fact, making deep police cuts in San Diego will be even harder than it seems.

The reasons: labor contracts, spending restrictions and the most powerful reason of all – a lack of political will at the highest levels of city government.

For the hundreds of residents and activists who have flooded San Diego City Council phone lines in the last six months to push for police reforms and budget cuts, cutting around the edges of the $568 million police budget will not be enough. A recent VOSD poll found more people in the county supported reallocating police funding than those who oppose such a move. But where reform efforts may gain more momentum is on the programmatic side, changing how police interact with certain segments of the community or removing them from the equation to some extent.

Here is a look at the barriers that make dramatic San Diego police budget cuts difficult, and the avenues where some cuts and reforms could more easily come to pass.

The Contract/Personnel Cuts

The San Diego Police Department is the city’s largest – consuming $568 million of the city’s $1.62 billion adopted general fund budget this year, or 35 percent. Police department employees consist of roughly the same percentage of the overall city workforce, at 34 percent, city budget records show.

The bulk of that police money – 87 percent – is spent on employee pay and benefits, totaling $496 million, an Oct.19 analysis of the police budget by the city’s independent budget analyst shows.

In recent years, the IBA analysis shows the personnel portion of the police budget has grown at a faster clip than the rest of the budget, thanks to a multi-year series of across-the-board raises that concluded in 2020.

Any major cuts to the police department would surely involve personnel cuts, but that will involve the labor union.

Though currently up for renegotiation, the city’s labor pact with the San Diego Police Officers Association restricts the city from taking unilateral budget action in a lot of circumstances.

Reducing personnel or changing employee working conditions are often subject to so-called “meet and confer” negotiations with labor union representatives. Not negotiating such cuts can open the city up to liability.

Under the existing contract for instance, the city agreed to minimum staffing levels for field training officers, like sergeants, and higher pay rates for officers working late night shifts, overtime as well as those who must attend court hearings or are called back to work.

Extra pay is also afforded to officers working in specialized units like the K-9-unit, SWAT team, the harbor unit or emergency negotiators, the contract says. There are also allowances granted for equipment and uniforms, and for costs to clean uniforms.

The contract does acknowledge the city has the right to “relieve its employees from duty because of lack of work or for other legitimate reasons,” but that right “does not preclude employees or their representatives from meeting and conferring or meeting and consulting as required by law with City representatives about the practical consequences that decisions on these matters may have on wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.”

What’s more, if the city took the step of laying off officers, their departure is not guaranteed.

“A permanent employee whose layoff is imminent will have the right of transfer to any vacant position in the same class or subdivision thereof in any other department,” the contract says. “If there is no such vacancy, said employee will have the right of competition for retention in equal and the next successively lower classes in which he or she has served satisfactorily.”

As of August, the police department had 2,400 full-time equivalent employees and 174 vacancies, most in patrol operations, the IBA analysis found. That number does not include hourly positions.

Simply eliminating vacancies to meet the demand for cuts may be the path of least resistance – and Detective Jack Schaeffer, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, said such a move to “get us over the gap” in the budget would be preferable to salary reductions for those on the force or a hiring freeze that prevents the replacement of departing officers.

“We already have a hard time getting officers,” and “we kind of do it on the cheap anyway, compared to other big cities… We do more with less,” said Schaeffer. “We are already 100 officers down, so that should be a decent savings right there.”

Just eliminating vacancies would not achieve blockbuster results, but could shave $33 million from the police budget, according to a rough estimate by Voice of San Diego using city records. (VOSD divided the total general fund police personnel budget in 2021 by the total police full-time equivalent workforce for an average cost that includes pay and benefits and multiplied it by 174 vacancies.)

But even that number would not be fully felt because some vacancy savings are already factored into the city budget annually across all departments. For the police this year, $20.4 million in police vacancy savings are already accounted for, city budget records show.

Another huge personnel expense that cannot be unilaterally cut are retiree health and pension benefits. The city estimated those police costs would top $153 million this year alone.

Rising pensions costs are just one area of financial stress for the city this year and every year. Citywide pension costs next year and the coming five years are projected to climb even higher.

A Tough Fiscal Year

This year the city is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, and the economic impacts are also hitting the city’s bottom line. Budget stress this year could help city officials justify cuts to police – if desired.

The city is staring down a 2021-22 deficit of more than $124 million, according to the mayor’s five-year financial outlook report released in November.

By comparison, the projected deficit estimated this time last year was $83.7 million. The deficit estimated the year before that was $73.6 million, and before that was $10.1 million.

For even more context, the projected deficit during the Great Recession topped $179 million in fall 2009, a hole that grew by $28 million a few months later.

If city officials were leery of cutting police personnel to close the existing $124 million gap, or even part of it, they may turn to the almost $72 million the city spends from its general fund on the non-personnel side of the police budget.

But what they will find is a series of expenses that cannot be easily redlined. The city has deemed $45 million-worth “non-discretionary,” meaning for the most part, it cannot be cut.

A closer look at those “non-discretionary” costs by the IBA recently revealed almost all of it – $44 million – consists of some IT costs, vehicle and fuel costs and utilities.

Contracts are budgeted at $15 million and include $5 million for central jail and detention facilities, nearly $3 million for towing contracts, $2 million for crime reporting and other software, followed by $1 million for helicopter maintenance. The remaining contracts are smaller and cover things like the crime laboratory, forensic exams, certain training costs and facilities maintenance.

Activists pushing for changes to local policing are not just interested in dollar reductions, though. And it is those other changes that may have more of a chance for success.

Beyond Budget Cuts

In the talks about police reform, a few areas of concern have consistently come up from community members and are viewed as ripe for change, even by insiders.

Homelessness is one of those areas.

“Police should not be first responders to societal issues that they are ill-equipped to handle, such as poverty, mental illness and homelessness,” said Mitchelle Woodson, executive director of San Diego homeless advocacy agency Think Dignity, during a Facebook discussion earlier this year that unveiled a package of police reforms sought by a local coalition.

The group, called the Coalition for Police Accountability and Transparency, laid out a series of changes they’d like to see to improve police relations with communities of color.

Taking some pressure off SDPD to respond to homeless calls would not be a bad idea, said Schaeffer with the police union.

“In my opinion, it should be looked into,” Schaeffer said. “As police officers, everything falls in our lap. … While I don’t think we can be taken out of the equation 100 percent, I do think social workers can do a lot of what we do in the homeless area. … I would worry about them taking us completely out of that area because there are violent issues in that area.”

In San Diego, people without homes are often confronted by police and can face serious consequences for living on the street.

Moving homeless contacts away from police would also align with recommendations made in a San Diego Community Action Plan on Homelessness commissioned by the San Diego Housing Commission released last year.

“Outreach workers – rather than police – should be first responders regarding unsheltered populations or other outreach-related issues,” the report said. It also noted the current approach, which has SDPD “carry out core outreach functions” rather than service provider experts and clinical teams “leads to role confusion and anxiety by people experiencing homelessness, as well as putting undue pressure on limited law enforcement resources.”

The city budgeted $3 million for the police Homeless Outreach Team this year, including overtime, city records show. The team consists of two police sergeants, 12 police officers and a lieutenant, who is budgeted separately, according to the IBA analysis.

Another area of interest that sometimes overlaps with the homeless population concerns mental health calls. In this area, Schaeffer sees a greater role for the county to play, perhaps by enhancing its Psychiatric Emergency Response Team, which pairs mental health professionals with specially trained police officers at SDPD.

Activists have also pushed for a more independent police oversight board with investigatory and subpoena powers, which they got with the passage of Measure B by voters in November.

But they would also like to see other non-monetary changes, like adopting strong de-escalation and use-of-force policies to avoid encounters with police that cause bodily harm.

Those who want police retrained in that area may not see results quickly, though.

“You can’t train 1,900 people overnight,” Schaeffer cautioned.

Reformers also want to see SDPD limit discretionary stops, sometimes called pretext stops, which have shown to target communities of color more than other groups.

The city’s police assigned to combat gangs are also a major source of concern and frustration for some residents.

The city’s street gang unit costs $10.4 million this year and has 44 officers. Among other things, the officers serve on a violent crimes task force, a graffiti strike force and maintain local CalGang data files, a state database with its share of problems. Five more SDPD officers are assigned to a gang intervention unit and some of the 19 officers in the special operations unit are also responsible for gang enforcement, the IBA report said.

Khalid Alexander, president of Pillars of the Community, an Islamic organization focused on social justice in southeastern San Diego, singled out the police gang suppression teams as a problem to the city’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee Oct. 28.

Those teams, Alexander said, “target Black and Brown children, that watch these children become homeless, that watch these children deal with poverty, that watch these children deal with failing education systems and do nothing. Instead, they track them, they target them and then arrest them and use them to continue to fill our criminal justice institutions and prisons and jails.”

But Alexander sees a big place for financial changes, too.

“If we invest in communities, if we invest in our children, if we invest in the social services, then you will not need to have an armed military force intervene on everyday social issues that we need to be dealing with as a community,” Alexander said.

Whether such changes will ever come will depend on the mayor and nine City Council members.

Lack of Political Will

Though Republicans in San Diego have advocated for cuts to the police in the past – notably via pension reform – the current “defund the police” movement is typically aligned with those on the left.

But anyone looking for newly elected Democratic Mayor Todd Gloria to take up the baton should not hold their breath. Gloria, a former city councilman who recently served in the state Assembly, made it clear repeatedly on the campaign trail he has no interest in defunding San Diego police.

Hundreds of protesters march through University Avenue to demand justice for George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.⁣⁣ / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In fact, Gloria said police need more money for more training to improve racial equity across town, writing in a San Diego Union-Tribune commentary in June, “It’s not what we defund. It’s what we must fund.”

During his inauguration speech this month, Gloria redirected focus away from police when briefly discussing racial justice as a priority of his administration.

“We will center racial justice and equity not just in public safety but in everything we do, recognizing that black lives matter,” he said.

Despite his opposition to the “defund the police” movement, Gloria has not opposed all reforms and has played a role in effecting a few.

As an assemblyman, Gloria co-wrote legislation banning the law enforcement’s use of the chokehold statewide earlier this year, supported efforts to end private, for-profit prisons, and made unsuccessful efforts toward demilitarizing the police and ending cash money bail in California.

Gloria has also made it clear he could support some changes to local police functions. “No, I do not support defunding the police,” he told KUSI in August. “I do think that there are functions that our law officers are currently asked to do that we don’t want them to do and that they don’t want to do, specifically things like mental health intervention, homeless services and those are the kinds of things we can provide to other agencies to work upon.”

The San Diego Police Officers Association endorsed Gloria for mayor and two other newcomers who won election to the City Council.

As for the rest of the City Council, their recent 5-4 decision to install Jen Campbell as Council president over Monica Montgomery Steppe, the most vocal advocate for police reform on the Council, made major police cuts less likely. And it is unclear what reforms most might support.

Montgomery Steppe is sure to continue the conversation, though. She was reappointed chair of the city’s Committee on Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods this week, though no one else on the committee voted for her as Council president.

“By retaining my role as chair of (the committee), we will continue our work to reimagine policing and public safety, including the implementation of independent Commission on Police Practices, the Surveillance Ordinance and Privacy Advisory Board, and working to improve accountability and rebuilding the much needed trust between our officers and residents,” Montgomery Steppe said in a statement.

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