Chief Suhr: Stay or Go?

by on May 16, 2016

Following a hunger protest, march to City Hall, call for a general strike and four supervisors asking for his replacement, the San Francisco Chronicle concluded that San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr’s political support is “eroding.” Supervisor Jane Kim’s call for Suhr’s replacement blanketed the front page of the SF Examiner.  District Attorney George Gascon’s released a “blue ribbon” report critical of bias in the SFPD, seeking to foster the impression that even independent observers think the department needs new leadership.

But do these various attacks on Suhr reflect anywhere near majority sentiment in the city? The answer is no.

For all of its effort to give “both sides,” the San Francisco media gave outsized coverage to five hunger strikers in the Mission while entirely ignoring support for Suhr in vast sections of the city. Hunger strikes draw media, but providing coverage is different from investing the action with political significance unjustified by the facts.

Suhr’s defenders understandably complain that a political minority has been given far too much credibility in attacks on the chief.  We see no opposition to Suhr in most of the city, and even critics acknowledge Suhr maintains his wide popularity throughout the SFPD.

Most of the Board of Supervisors backs Suhr. Supervisors Campos and Avalos sharply criticized those calling for Suhr’s ouster only a week ago before reversing course. The two attribute their shift to the release of Gascon’s report, though Gascon’s subsequent appearance at a rally with progressive candidates for June bolstered claims that the District Attorney’s report was driven by politics.

Supervisor Scott Wiener accused State Senate rival Jane Kim of calling for Suhr’s firing “in order in order to generate press headlines.” But given that Kim already had the votes of people opposed to Suhr and that most voters likely back the chief, it’s hard to see a political gain or motive in Kim’s stance.

 Suhr Should Stay

If major American cities are going to replace their police chief whenever a rank and file officer speaks or acts in a racist manner or wrongfully kills someone, there will be constant turnover. These large urban police departments will soon become dysfunctional. There is a night and day difference between the systemic, ongoing and structural racism that led to the chief’s firing in Chicago and the claims made against Chief Greg Suhr in San Francisco.

There is also a huge difference between a chief that refuses to implement badly needed reforms and Suhr, who has backed such changes.  While Kim feels Suhr has become a “distraction” and impediment to the SFPD’s transition to better practices, I’ve reached the opposite conclusion.

Suhr’s critics appear to be comparing a public official to an ideal, rather than an actual replacement candidate. There are two options for replacing Suhr:  an outsider or a current member of the top SFPD brass.

Outsiders do not work well at the SFPD. We have seen this time and again, from Chief Charles Gain under Mayor Moscone to Chief George Gascon under Mayor Newsom. Gain created such a backlash among officers that some stopped making arrests, and his decision to shift to baby blue police cars became a symbol of his failure to understand the SFPD’s culture.

Gascon came into the chief’s role vowing to end public drug dealing in the Tenderloin. He had great success, but quickly abandoned that commitment. Gascon’s alienated rank and file officers and top captains alike, displaying an arrogance that made it clear he understood police work better than they did. He was such a failure that Newsom had to make up for his error by appointing him District Attorney.

Since an outsider won’t work, the alternative is replacing Suhr with one of his top deputies. But if Suhr’s policies are the problem, what is the point of replacing him with an ally who shares those policies and has helped draft and implement them?

Replacing from the inside also makes no sense because Suhr’s alleged complicity in these wrongful shootings is not based on personal conduct but upon his alleged failure to properly train officers. If Suhr bears this blame, so does his entire command structure.

Change for Change Sake

Examining the alternatives leads to one conclusion: Greg Suhr is the chief best positioned to reform the SFPD. The only “political momentum” behind his replacement is a media creation. You hear very little criticism of the chief throughout most of the city.

I got my own insight about Suhr’s support during the Tenderloin’s 2-year organizing campaign to improve community safety (The campaign began in 2013, “1500 Tenderloin Residents, Workers Tell Chief Suhr ‘Enough.’”). The Tenderloin did not prevail until April 15, 2015 (“Tenderloin Wins at SF Police Commission”), and that was due to the support of SF Police Commission President Suzy Loftus and over the opposition of Chief Suhr.

When we were waging our two year battle, I spoke to people across the city looking for allies in our fight against Suhr. I discovered he was incredibly popular. We couldn’t get a single elected official  to join our fight (Suhr has given the Tenderloin two great captains in Jason Cherniss and Teresa Ewins).

I wrote after the Mario Woods killing last December (“Will Chief Suhr Survive?”) that “Suhr is not at risk at being fired by Mayor Lee. And not a single Supervisor who faces a future election has called for his resignation.” Kim’s call for his replacement (though not his firing) may now qualify my earlier statement, but the others Supervisors backing Suhr’s ouster are termed out. If major supervisor candidates in November, including leading progressives, have issued media calls to replace Suhr I have not heard them.

This leads me to conclude that while a very small group feels passionate about replacing Suhr, most of the city feels otherwise.

Replacing Suhr may give some the feeling that they accomplished something tangible, but it strikes me as a call for change for change sake. It’s a step away from real reform and toward the type of cosmetic changes that substitute for those making a difference.

San Francisco faces many major challenges, but finding a new police chief is not among them.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He describes the long history of crime and police in the Tenderloin in his book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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