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San Francisco considers reviving Gold Rush era crime-fighting unit

Ride along with the last of the San Francisco Patrol Special police
Ride along with the last of the San Francisco Patrol Special police 05:33

SAN FRANCISCO -- The San Francisco Police Department welcomed its largest class of recruits since 2020 and applications are on a five-year high. Still, filling 600 vacant positions may take some time.  

There is another option. it's a little-known security force that dates all the way back to the Gold Rush era. It's called the San Francisco Patrol Special Police and, at present, Alan Byard is its last active member.

For more than 47 years, he has been patrolling his beat, driving an  unmarked car through the Marina District and parts of Pacific Heights. 

"We have an increased homeless population," he said. "Approximately 70 percent of them have a drug, alcohol or mental health problem. So, it can be dangerous." 

Even though he looks like a police officer, he's not. 

Patrol Special, an ancillary crime-fighting force overseen by the San Francisco Police Department, has dedicated uniforms, badges and guns. However, their powers are limited. 

Patrol Special members can apprehend suspects but they can't arrest them. Perhaps the biggest difference between them and police officers is who pays their salary.  

"We get paid by the citizens and residents and businesses in our particular area to provide additional services to them," Byard explained. 

Byard charges anywhere from $65 per month for residences to a few hundred dollars for businesses.

On one particular evening in early September, Byard got a call from one of his paying clients worried about an unhoused individual who appeared to be unstable. The man had been yelling on a stoop and refused to leave.

Byard arrived before the police and, within minutes, defused the situation. 

At one point, the city had more than 450 Patrol Specials, but the program has been phased out after police officers started working off-duty patrols to make extra cash. Byard is the last Patrol Special on duty in San Francisco and, at 68, he's hoping to retire.  

Now, with the spike in crime and a severe police staffing shortage, there have been discussions among city officials to bring back the program.  

"You have somebody who is a trained peace officer who is really devoted to a particular neighborhood who embodies the notion of community policing," said Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. "They know the neighbors and I think that brings peace of mind to our residents and makes our city safer." 

Not everyone thinks this program should be revived. Ken Lomba, the president of the San Francisco Deputy Sheriff's Association said Patrol Specials undergo a lot less training. Plus, not everyone can afford them.  

"I think it's better to have more police officers and more deputy sheriffs on the streets making the arrests and putting criminals in jail," he said.  

Byard believes doing away with Patrol Specials is a mistake, especially considering it costs the city nothing.  

"How can you argue with a program where you get police officers for free? We're the eyes and the ears of what's going on out here," he said.

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