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, Police Chief George Gascón said. To do so, a separate crime scene technician has to be called out, which could stretch into the next day.
"When the police get there, you've been waiting for three, four, five hours," Gascón said. "By this time, you're really fit to be tied."
That's all supposed to change under a pioneering and controversial test program included in the city's new budget 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.
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. The civilian investigators would work in one or two of the 10 district stations.
Rather than making victims wait indefinitely, civilian investigators could schedule an appointment over the phone for a set time. Civilian staff wouldn't be called away for a crime in progress and would also be trained to offer crime prevention tips, Gascón said.
"Their job will be to basically start handling all of those calls that do not require someone with a gun," he said.
Some national 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.
The program, modeled on one Gascón introduced while chief in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, Ariz., before being hired in San Francisco last year, comes as the chief expects 78 officers to retire this year, positions the city doesn't have the money to fill. Civilian investigators can be hired with salaries ranging from $47,000 to $57,000 a year, compared with base salaries ranging from $88,000 to $110,000 a year for police officers, according to city figures.