The San Francisco Police Department is facing staffing challenges, with the current number of officers falling below recommended levels. However, while Proposition B on the March ballot aims to address this issue, its approach, which raises questions of police effectiveness and financial uncertainty, is not the needed solution.

Near the end of 2023, San Francisco fielded 1,578 full-time police officers—well short of the department’s recommended 2,182. Prop. B would set a minimum staffing level of 2,074 officers within five years and establish a police recruitment fund. Supervisor Matt Dorsey, the original sponsor, has withdrawn his support for the current proposal, citing concerns about its financial implications and the likelihood that it would actually deliver safer streets.

Dorsey’s first draft sought to fix the attrition of SFPD and bring the department up to full staffing. It quickly received strong support from local leaders, including Mayor London Breed, but an amendment by Supervisor Ahsha Safaí slowed progress and soured support.

Safaí’s amendment to Prop. B would require the passage of a future, yet-to-be crafted, tax source, or the modification of a current tax source, to fill the recruitment fund. No language in the current measure would actually raise the money needed for the additional police staffing. Prop. B would require the city to spend money out of the general fund to meet the minimum requirement should city politicians not be able to agree on new taxes.

Dorsey rightly points out that residents should already be enjoying a fully staffed SFPD, based on the taxes residents currently pay, not on an unspecified fee-for-service add-on. Dorsey aptly dubs this approach a “cop tax” scheme, highlighting the disconnect between funding public services and imposing extra fees on residents.

Safaí argues that Dorsey’s original proposal would have been fiscally irresponsible. Safaí has a point. Requiring spending cuts to budget priorities established earlier is often bad governance, but Safaí’s amendment would create other problems.

Without a concrete plan for financing new police staffing, Prop. B shifts the additional burden onto taxpayers, either through new, unspecified future tax increases or foregone budget priorities. Both are uncertain bets and raise questions about the city’s ability to actually fully staff police operations.

As the holder of the purse strings, it falls squarely within the responsibility of the Board of Supervisors and the mayor to enact budgets that prioritize essential services, including public safety, and explain how services will be funded. With the authority to allocate resources and set spending priorities, the Board has the power to increase police staffing levels without resorting to Proposition B's uncertain cop tax scheme.

Even if Proposition B had offered a clearer funding mechanism, simply increasing police spending may amount to political fluff. Despite substantial increases in law enforcement funding over the past three decades, California has failed to see a significant return on its investment. California cities have been spending more on police while solving fewer crimes, as a recent Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice report reveals. According to the report, San Francisco and Alameda counties exhibit the lowest clearance rates for criminal cases, standing at 6.7 percent and 5.8 percent, respectively, despite increased spending on policing.

These statistics suggest that simply bolstering police numbers, as proposed in Proposition B, is not an adequate answer to the root causes of crime or enhance public safety in San Francisco. Are police misallocating the funds they are given, or should more funding for other law enforcement strategies take priority over staffing? This potential tradeoff is a question that the Board is in a position to weigh and tying their hands on this matter doesn’t help.

If more staffing is the answer, the city should develop targeted strategies to address police understaffing in a manner that specifies any needed future tax increases or spending cuts. Proposition B is not the transparent and sustainable plan that San Franciscans should expect. Voters deserve a carefully crafted solution and thus should reject Proposition B in March.