What happens when you defund and demoralize local police? You get the military, and state troopers

A shrinking, demoralized San Francisco Police Department is getting assistance from the California National Guard and the California Highway Patrol — What could possibly go wrong?

An awful lot of firepower was up there on the dais with the mayor last week. Photo courtesy KABC SF

Last week California Governor Gavin Newsom took a break from ignoring California and running for president in Florida and Arkansas (two states that scream “Gavin!”) to quietly order the California National Guard and California Highway Patrol into San Francisco to assist local police with the spiraling fentanyl crisis. At the outset it’s important to note that it’s an extremely small contingent, at least to start. On Friday California National Guard Major General Matthew Beevers explained that 15 National Guard personnel will join 75 CHP officers to supplement and support the San Francisco Police Department’s (SFPD) efforts. Beevers was quick to point out that the Guard has no plans for “boots on the ground,” and that the military personnel will be limited to behind-the-scenes analysts.

To be sure, SF needs all the help it can get. As of last year the SFPD was nearly 20% below full staffing, and things seem set to get worse. According to the blog Mission Local, “In 2013, the list of candidates who’d taken the SFPD entry exam was 68 pages long with dozens of names on each page. By February of this year, the list was six pages long.” Meanwhile, the department has hired a record number of civilian employees — according to the blog, between 2011 and 2021 non-sworn staff increased 65%, from 440 to 728.

As has been the case in other cities that have tagged police as part of the problem, if not the problem, these trends have taken their toll on the rank-and-file, and in turn on public safety. Consider this passage from a story in San Francisco Magazine:

Insiders understand the nature of the paralysis gripping the department and, by extension, the city itself. Imagine a scenario where poor morale and a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t attitude among cops leads to a passive kind of policing — “depolicing,” to use the wonky term — where many crimes that could be stopped are allowed to happen. That is the road many believe San Francisco is on, with no clear plan for changing course.

It sounds like a current headline — but the story was written almost 16 years ago, in December 2007. That’s how long SFPD has been spiraling. A demoralized, diminished local police department is reaching a breaking point, a point at which Newsom has to call the cavalry. Mind you, when he was mayor San Francisco rejected the chance to host the fabled battleship USS Iowa as a museum because it would have been too militaristic. The irony is as rich as the foie gras served at Newsom’s restaurants (or rather, the restaurants the Getty family funded and managed in order to give Newsom a business-friendly sheen on his way to power).

On the surface it seems like a strong move, signaling the city’s and the state’s renewed commitment to fighting the scourge of fentanyl poisoning that kills an estimated 150 Californians every week. And to his credit, as far back as the summer of 2021 when the movement was peaking, Newsom went on the record saying, “Don’t ever confuse me with the defund movement.” One could read the tea leaves and see California pulling back from the abyss of defunding and depolicing that have contributed to skyrocketing crime rates up and down the state (don’t believe the “crime isn’t so bad” rhetoric — the fact is a huge percentage of crimes, including violent crimes, are no longer reported or recorded in the first place). It could even be viewed as Newsom taking a bold stance that’s out of step with his party, risking his political future in order to save his hometown. And of course the Guard and the CHP both have extensive experience interdicting drugs flowing into California from Mexico and other states.

Still, the move deserves scrutiny, if only because it’s highly unusual and potentially precedent-setting. As SFPD continues to struggle in the coming years, as seems almost certain, it’s logical to conclude the state and military elements will take up more and more of the slack. That raises concerns, as it eventually could put the military into an unfamiliar new role of directly handling daily, “routine” law enforcement. That would not be a good outcome. There’s a reason we have local police, state troopers, state National Guards, and the U.S. military. The Marine Corps doesn’t hand out traffic citations any more than the SFPD provide advisory support to Ukrainian forces in Crimea. While there is overlap, and certainly the different levels of law enforcement and military communicate all the time, this is a new form of blurring the lines.

Unfortunately, increased military involvement in local police activity is a likely outcome. The military is notorious for “mission creep,” and if there’s an inviolable rule of the universe it’s that once a government program gets started it’s all but impossible to end. It’s easy to imagine San Francisco city leadership coming to view the California National Guard as, in a sense, at their disposal. It starts with a dozen analysts working in the background. How long before those boots are on the ground the Major assured everyone weren’t in the cards?

A personal anecdote: During the first weekend of the George Floyd riots at the end of May 2020 Los Angeles County, along with most individual cities, imposed a “curfew” of 10pm. Since I have what I refer to as my Get Out of Jail Free card, my Los Angeles Press Club badge, I was legally able to go outside after curfew. I walked the streets of Santa Monica that night along with an L.A. Times reporter. A night later I was in downtown L.A.

I lived through the anti-American riots in China in 1999, as a young English teacher in Tianjin. After the U.S. accidentally bombed the Chinese consulate in Belgrade during the Kosovo air war, China erupted in anti-U.S. protests, many of which turned violent. For two weeks my fellow foreign teachers and I were locked down in our building, with a double column of PLA soldiers ringing the building. We were never entirely sure whether it was to keep us safe, since they didn’t stop protestors from lobbing rancid fruit and vegetables, rocks, even Molotov cocktails into the building (my roommate and I put out a half dozen fires in our room).

Suffice it to say, I learned the difference between a “curfew” and a “military lockdown.” The former is what government imposes to protect its citizens. The latter is what it uses to protect itself. What I saw on the streets of Santa Monica and L.A. those nights didn’t look like much like a curfew to me, not with armored personnel carriers and Humvees everywhere, not with fully equipped troops by the thousand. To be sure, they were there for the right reasons, at a time when the entire country felt on the brink of mere anarchy. They weren’t going to tolerate Molotov cocktails. And at the end of the day we were all on the same side, Americans. Nevertheless, it was an object lesson from which we can learn.

Around 2am that first night, a pair of Marine Corps V-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft came flying down Wilshire Boulevard. When I say they were flying low, they were flying low. They were also using full military power, a combined 25,000 horsepower screaming like banshees at rooftop level. I do not exaggerate when I say it nearly knocked me off my feet. My ears rang for an hour.

It was actually frightening. I’m a lifelong airplane nut, with approximately a gazillion air shows under my belt. I’m one of those people who looks up whenever I hear an airplane, even if it’s a just a Cessna. I have never, before or since, witnessed military aircraft operate like that over a populated area. It’s the kind of thing you have to drive out to Edwards to even have a hope of seeing.

One other example: A few days after 9/11 I decided to go for a hike. I needed to get away from everything and clear my head. I was walking on a spectacular ridge in the Marin Headlands, feeling a modicum of relief for the first time since the attacks. The Bay Area normally is an aviation nerd’s dream, especially from the Headlands. With three major international airports and more than a dozen regional and general aviation fields the skies above San Francisco are a delightful ballet. Not that day. Like Santa Monica and L.A. on the first nights of the riots, there was an uncanny, eerie quiet. Then, an hour or so into my hike, I heard airplanes. I was momentarily elated — some normalcy! — until I saw a pair of F-15s fly down the coast, again at fairly low altitude. Low enough that I could see the missiles hanging under their wings and fuselages. They made two circles over the Bay, then flew inland. Then it was back to eerie silence. I remember thinking, I thought I understood power. I had no idea. It was all the more impactful to realize that power had been exercised via a single presidential phone call.

Obviously, those were extraordinary circumstances, and it can be argued I’m comparing apples to oranges.

Or am I?

Those experiences, I think, illustrate how the almost incomprehensible power of the U.S. military can be deployed with head-spinning speed. It also reminds us that even in the world’s strongest democracies, brute force isn’t necessarily as far away as we like to think.

What makes the San Francisco case so important to watch is that other examples of National Guard deployment have been by definition temporary. Even when President Eisenhower deployed the Alabama National Guard to enforce desegregation, the units had a specific task and purpose. In this case, they will be embedded into the community, over the long term, with a mission that can — and almost certainly will — change and expand. What happens the next time the Guard is deployed in a crisis situation — only this time there’s an existing command structure and operational norms in the city/cities in question? Again, with local police forces depleted, it’s not difficult to imagine the next logical step: Let’s keep the troops here to bolster and assist with regular policing. Just a few, just for a while, of course.

That’s not being conspiratorial. I don’t think there’s some nefarious plan to militarize and federalize local police. Then again, if you’d told me five years ago that Sacramento would wrest development and zoning, even individual land use decisions, away from local governments and send armies of state attorneys into towns around California for the express purpose of “monitoring compliance” and “escalating enforcement steps” often without even informing the local governments in question of their presence, I’d have pegged you as a tinfoil hat aficionado. Yet here we are, with that exact scenario playing out. The key word is “escalating.” It’s right there in the press release.

There’s one other troubling aspect to this story. The same week Newsom announced the National Guard and CHP were headed to San Francisco, the legislature was busy defeating at least eight bills that would have enhanced penalties for fentanyl dealers and manufacturers. One of those bills, called “Alexandra’s Law” after a teenage girl who died by fentanyl poisoning, would have treated selling the drug similarly to a DUI. The first time a dealer is caught selling, they would have received a warning informing them that they are selling a potentially deadly poison. Once cited, if that individual subsequently sells a fatal dose to a customer, they can be tried and convicted for manslaughter. It would have targeted the right folks — manufacturers and dealers — and addressed the spiraling body count on the streets. And it went down.

So the same week the military are deployed to enforce drug laws the legislature defeated new drug laws aimed at the exact drug the military is there to help interdict. What’s going on? If the law doesn’t keep pace with the rapidly-changing circumstances on the ground what difference are those National Guard and state troopers going to make?

A week after Newsom’s announcement, President Biden deployed 1,500 Guard troops to assist with border enforcement. An unidentified U.S. official told CNN, “These 1,500 military personnel will fill critical capability gaps, such as ground-based detection and monitoring, data entry, and warehouse support, until CBP can address these needs through contracted support. They will not be doing any law enforcement work.”

Sound familiar?

A final irony. I was attending UC Hastings law school in San Francisco while Newsom was mayor. Hastings is located in the city’s Tenderloin District, long known as its Skid Row. It was in the Tenderloin in the early 2000s that I personally first encountered so may of the scenes that today are horrifying quotidian (recall the 2007 SF Magazine story): Public drug use and sales, public defecation and urination, people screaming at demons only they could see at all hours of the day and night, fights, death, general human misery. By the time he left office the city was well into its own death spiral, with the veneer of tech wealth barely covering the anarchy just beneath. Newsom himself was a sort of human anarchy in his term, sleeping with a teenager, showing up drunk in emergency rooms where police officers lay shot, declaring war on the cable cars, showing up drunk pretty much everywhere (he later checked himself into rehab and by all accounts no longer drinks heavily).

San Francisco declined on his watch as mayor, and California is declining precipitously on his watch as governor. Now, Newsom is sending federal troops into the city, starting in the Tenderloin where it all began 20 years ago.

It is for us Californians to wonder, then, is his deployment of the National Guard and CHP to beleaguered San Francisco a considered, strategic move — or another cry for help?


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