Myrna Melgar, Kimberly Ellis, and Peter Walsh in City Hall.
Speakers at the Thursday “Working Conditions for Women in the SFPD” hearing. From left to right: Supervisor Myrna Melgar, Kimberly Ellis, director of the Department on the Status of Women and Deputy Chief Peter Walsh.

The San Francisco Police Department laid out plans to overhaul some of the areas it has set aside for breastfeeding mothers Thursday in a Public Safety and Neighborhood Services committee hearing.

The changes were prompted after several female police officers told NBC last October that the lactation spaces the SFPD provides were “dirty,” “cramped,” and “uncomfortable.” The hearing was called by Supervisor Myrna Melgar and co-sponsored by Supervisor Catherine Stefani.

“We did fall down in this situation,” said Deputy Chief Peter Walsh. “That is not even up for debate.”

The police department has some 25 lactation rooms spread across the city. However, 11 of these are not dedicated exclusively to lactation, but are instead “multiple-purpose” areas. Several are in screened-off areas of locker rooms. One lactation area, at a site near Lake Merced, is located within a sergeant’s office.

According to city policy, departments are required to provide at least one private place at every work site​​ where lactation is the “primary function.”

Penny Si, the police department’s American Disabilities Act coordinator, said that the department has “unique space constraints” in some of its older buildings, making it difficult to have rooms purely for lactation at every site. Si said that, instead of designating new rooms, private lactation-only areas would be carved out of the existing spaces by “installing modular walls.”

“We are charging full steam ahead at getting to best practices for our lactating employees,” said Si. The first stage of improvements will upgrade six of the lactation spaces, and is set to be complete within the next 30 days.

Not everyone was satisfied with the announced changes. Kimberly Ellis, director of the Department on the Status of Women, said that amenities in lactation areas, such as a refrigerator and a comfortable chair, were “encouraged” under current guidance, but not required: “I think one of the things we really need to look at is ensuring that San Francisco isn’t doing the bare minimum,” she said. Pumped breast milk must be refrigerated to keep it from spoiling.

“With respect to lactation, we need to, bottom line, procure and or buy lactation pods for every station and worksite,” said Ellis. “Putting up walls, putting up screens — some of us believe that is unacceptable in a supposedly world-class city.”

Recruiting and retaining female officers

Several speakers at the hearing, and during public comment, saw the department’s issues with lactation spaces as part of a wider set of problems that makes policing less attractive for women.

“The conditions for women who do join the force have not been great,” said Melgar. “I think that every organization is made better by including women, including the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the Supreme Court, and the SFPD.”

One major factor seen to be holding back women in the department is a dearth of childcare options. According to a survey presented by Ellis, some 72 percent of female officers feel that a lack of childcare resources has impacted their work performance. Around 30 percent have considered leaving the police department because of a lack of childcare benefits.

“These women today want more options, and they deserve more options,” said Lt. Tracy McCray, president of the Police Officers Association. She said that, during her work with the police department, she had needed to take night shifts so that she could take care of her daughter during the day.

Ellis said that a lack of women in the department was a problem, in part, because female officers tend to have better outcomes when it comes to excessive force and racial disparities in arrests: “Having fewer women in law enforcement actually undermines our collective safety,” she said.

Around 15 percent of sworn officers in San Francisco are women, compared to a national average of 13 percent. Metropolitan areas typically have higher figures, with Los Angeles at 18 percent and New York City at 20 percent.

The San Francisco Police Department is currently around 500 sworn officers below its target staffing level, with 300 more officers presently eligible for retirement. Deputy Chief Walsh said that the recruitment of more women is one way to tackle this, and the department aims to raise the number of female officers to 30 percent by 2030. He said that new data collection in its recruitment process should help the San Francisco Police Department to focus on areas where it had the most success attracting women.

He added that reviews of the physical requirements for certain roles, such as SWAT, were ongoing, and that this could help more women move into such roles. Still, progress toward the 30 percent goal has been slow.

“I can say that we have not had great success, moving from 14 to 15 percent [in the past year],” he said. “But it is progress.”

You can watch the full archived meeting on the San Francisco TV website.

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DATA REPORTER. Will was born in the UK and studied English at Oxford University. After a few years in publishing, he absconded to the USA where he studied data journalism in New York. Will has strong views on healthcare, the environment, and the Oxford comma.

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  1. Two sleeps til Super Bowl !!

    This Assistant Chief is the guy who actually runs the department.

    Peter Walsh with a JD from Golden Gate and pure Irish St. Ignatius College Prep High School pedigree de rigeur for ‘Line Officer’ (meant they could command a ship and weren’t just pencil pushers or window dressing in Navy) …

    Been studying last Police Commission meeting (2-7-24) and he allowed that he’s the guy responsible for the department’s staff:

    (as he interrupted Chief Scott)

    “I have first hand knowledge because I oversee Background Checks.”

    He keeps:

    “2 or 3 Sworns in Backgrounds to oversee Laterals coming over.”

    Those are the skull crackers and recruited from the ‘Underground Rogue Cop Railway’ where SFPD gets damned near as many of their cops as from the Academy.

    I don’t know exact numbers but he hired 8 or 9 within last couple of months.

    They graduated classes of 9 and 11 recently and Walsh allows that they’d like to graduate 50 a year but don’t make it.

    What he doesn’t mention is that they don’t make it on purpose.

    The Overtime is so reliable that they can plan a mortgage years in advance counting on it and that’s why they’ve pretty much strangled the Patrol Specials who were competition and far better cops to boot.

    Out of 2,300 total cops counting SFO he has 10 assigned Permanent Foot Patrols.

    They need a thousand on the pavement like their grandpas did.

    Only an Elected Reform Police Chief with a steel backbone can Reform this department and believe it or not there are some people in this town already connected all around who could do it.

    But, it would take a Charter Amendment and the Mayor and SFPOA will fight it.

    Scott’s a pure figurehead and he clearly hates it when Commissioner Carter-Oberstone says ‘Chief’ and Scott defers to Walsh in a “Better let me take care of this one, ‘Boy Wonder’.” manner.

    Hell of a hearing and ‘Lactation’ made headlines in local onlines.

    This dawg’s eyes were on the Man behind the Curtain, Paul Walsh I think he said his name was.

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    1. We can focus on multiple things at once.

      No woman should feel uncomfortable for a perfectly reasonable biological process.

      And woman’s health and wellbeing is important, and it does tie into recruitment and retention, they even have data for it.

      Did not read article.

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    2. I think folks missed the /s but definitely good points laid out above about a) less bias and b) widening the talent pool of applicants to address the staffing crisis that make this workplace issue salient

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