If you find your home or car broken into in San Francisco, sometimes police respond in minutes. Other times it takes hours. Fingerprints and DNA evidence are often not collected; to do so, a crime scene technician has to be called. “When the police get there, you’ve been waiting for three, four, five hours,” Police Chief George Gascón told the San Francisco Chronicle. “By this time, you’re really fit to be tied.” That’s supposed to change under a pioneering and controversial test program that will use civilian investigators to respond to nonviolent crimes like burglaries or car break-ins, freeing up police officers to focus on crimes in progress or dangerous offenders.
It’s designed to improve response times while giving victims better “customer service” and detectives more evidence that can be used to catch criminals – for less than the cost of hiring more officers. Gascón bills it as more efficient policing, although he’s facing stiff opposition from the police union, which is wary of this latest effort to “civilianize” the department. “This is really about re-engineering policing,” said Gascón, who started developing the idea about five years ago after learning about civilian police uses in Great Britain. “It’s a program that I believe will increasingly become the model around the country.” Under a $955,000 pilot project to begin in January, 15 civilian investigators trained to interview victims and witnesses, write reports, take crime scene photos and collect fingerprint and DNA evidence would respond to less-serious cases where the crime occurred some time ago and no perpetrator is believed to be nearby. Some experts say it’s an innovative plan, but critics of similar programs in Britain have raised concerns that civilians could miss important clues and aren’t as accountable as police officers.