Garcia: S.F. politicians tell cops to 'walk the line' 

If our elected officials are so insistent on trying to control staffing issues for the San Francisco Police Department, perhaps they should consider moving to the district stations to get a better check on reality.

Then they might realize the folly of insisting on making personnel decisions based on political expediency rather than on available personnel.

That ill-advised strategy resulted in the transfer of an extremely competent and highly respected police captain last week from arguably the busiest and most difficult district station after he had the temerity to tell community members that he couldn’t address all of their crime- response needs because people at City Hall were dictating certain beat assignments.

And the transfer of veteran Capt. Kevin Dillon to a junior assignment has so riled the rank-and-file cops that nearly a dozen of them told me the exact same thing last week without any prompting.

"I can’t remember a time in the department when morale was lower,’’ one officer with 25 years of service told me last week. "The place is completely dysfunctional. And nobody seems to consider the ripple effect of something like a retaliatory transfer.’’

It should not be a surprise that any of the police officers I spoke with would not do so on the record — primarily because no one wants to be the next Kevin Dillon. And that’s especially true because officials have already hinted that more changes are on the way.

If that’s the case, they’d better be handled more smoothly than the most recent shuffle, which Chief Heather Fong tried to spin as a routine management rotation. If finding fall guys for failed staffing policies is going to be the norm, then Mayor Gavin Newsom’s stated desire to get more police in the department and on the streets is going to move from the category of extremely difficult to impossible.

Dillon’s reassignment is aperfect example of the dangers of trying to turn around an aircraft carrier via a land-operated remote control. When Newsom and Fong resisted the desire of a majority of supervisors to mandate certain foot patrols in specific areas, it resulted in a backlash at the board that ended with city officials legislating foot patrols. And so far that’s been about as successful as trying to promote good behavior at the board’s hearings.

For Dillon and his successor, the problem centers on the complexities of a police district that stretches from the Civic Center through the Western Addition and all the way to the Marina. Not only do the officers have to deal with homelessness and aggressive panhandling issues near City Hall (and believe me, they do — it’s one of the mayor’s bread-and-butter issues in this re-election year), they have gang-related violence issues in the housing projects as well as more routine crimes in the richer areas of The City.

But the push and pull between various board members and the Mayor’s Office over which areas had the highest priority in the district means that whole areas of the district go uncovered — resulting in more complaints. When Dillon aired his views publicly last week over the staffing issue, he just said what every police officer in San Francisco already knows — there aren’t enough police officers to meet the multiple demands. That’s not resistance, as some officials said; that’s reality.

So somebody’s head had to roll, and unfortunately it was Dillon’s — a savvy veteran who at various times was rumored to be in line to join the department’s command staff as one of the heads of the Investigations Bureau. To his credit, Dillon isn’t raising a public fuss about his demotion, but according to his friends, he’s saying he’s now closer to retirement than another high-profile job, which would be a considerable loss for the department.

Most people at the Hall of Justice believe the call on Dillon came straight out of the Mayor’s Office — largely based on the fact that the publicity-averse Fong would never make such a controversial change on her own. Yet the reaction to it has been nearly universal — dumb and dumber.

That might also accurately describe the state of The City’s politics, which have been characterized by budget and ballot games for the last three months. You could call it business as usual, but when it impacts public safety, taxpayers tend to take notice.

"Dillon was absolutely the wrong guy to go after,’’ another police captain told me. "But it’s pretty obvious they’re in crisis mode right now.’’

These are not the sort of reforms the experts say are needed for the San Francisco Police Department. But they do count as changes — the kind most successful agencies would work hard to avoid.

Yet, it might help explain why you just can’t find a police officer when you need one.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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