Hail to the Well-Paid, Cop-Loved, Politically Respected Chief

Bennett Cohen | November 27, 2012 | Story Profiles

IN THE MOVIE VERSION OF SFPD CHIEF Greg Suhr’s improbable career, the lead would go to Bruce Willis—a square-jawed, middle-aged white guy who makes up in swagger for what he lacks in hair. The city’s top cop looks like a throwback to the San Francisco that the ’60s forgot, but he sounds like a “closet social worker,” as his good friend, ex-supervisor Bevan Dufty, puts it—a combination that has made him that rarest of things in this ultra-left city: a police chief whom almost everyone seems to be rooting for.

More than that, Suhr may be the most powerful chief in at least a generation. “It’s like only Nixon can go to China,” says Peter Keane, UC Hastings law professor, former chief assistant public defender and police commissioner, and frequent critic of the department. “He doesn’t have to watch his back with the old-boy network. So he can reach out and do the kinds of things that someone else couldn’t do.” In the nearly two years since Suhr’s appointment, these changes have involved forcing cops to work more days—and nights. “A lot of them are really pissed off,” acknowledges Gary Delagnes, head of the Police Officers Association (POA) union, who worked the narcotics detail with Suhr during the dangerous crack cocaine years. Even so, Delagnes adds, morale is strong. “Greg’s worked his way up through the system, he’s been through shit himself, he understands what makes cops tick, and he understands San Francisco. And when you’re chief, those are the most important things.”

In a very real way, Suhr’s influence derives from the power of his personal narrative. There’s the impeccable Catholic-cop pedigree: His great-grandfather founded Tadich Grill in the 1880s; his grandfather served on the Board of Supervisors a century ago; and he attended St. Ignatius and USF and played football at City College. (He still lives a two-minute walk from the Sunset neighborhood where he grew up.) There’s the accident of his early years in the department: He joined in 1981, during a particularly divisive era, but spent most of his career in units where everyone had to get along, and the lessons he took away still resonate.

Finally, there’s the way his career was nearly derailed time and again during the past decade—first by Fajitagate, when he and most of the command staff were indicted and then exonerated in a department-wide scandal that started with a fight over takeout food; and later by then–police chief Heather Fong, who banished and demoted him for supposed mistakes in judgment (unfairly, his fellow officers fumed). Anyone else would have quit in disgust and tripled his salary as a consultant. But Suhr toughed it out. “The setbacks seasoned him,” Dufty says. “He never lost faith in being a police officer. Every day he walks in with the same idealism and enthusiasm he brought back in the 1980s. And that sets a very important tone.”

Let’s start with the biggest controversy of your tenure so far: your salary. Last year you took home $321,577, which makes you the highest-paid police chief in the country according to the Chronicle. In New York, which has a population more than 10 times bigger, police commissioner Ray Kelly earned $205,180, or almost 40 percent less.
They write that same salary story every couple of years. When I joined the department, the pay was $23,000, and our pension was 70 percent of that, or $16,000 a year. Nobody wanted to be a police officer then. We got 11 bucks an hour, which was 93rd in the state. That’s not much if you’ve been working the midnight shift in the Tenderloin for five years or you’re lying in the hospital because your radial artery has been slashed. The Police Officers Association turned the salary situation around, and now we are number three in the country in compensation. But in this tough economy, we have a lot of class warfare, and that’s too bad. I know I try to earn my salary every day.

You’ve worked Bayview–Hunters Point, the Mission—some pretty rough assignments. In your experience, what kind of police department does this city want?
When things are working in the neighborhoods, people say, “You know, San Francisco cops are different from other cops. San Francisco cops are cool.” In other words, we can tell the difference—hopefully—between a good kid having a bad day and a bad guy. The former deserves some discretion, a call to his parents, a ride home, a referral to the Boys & Girls Club, while the other guy needs to go to jail. In a lot of towns, it’s just go to jail. If we want a safer city over the long term, we can only do it through kids, through generational change. It’s all about paths and choices. As police, it’s our responsibility to help [at-risk kids] along, give them opportunities, make sure they’re career- or college-ready. If we show them we think they’re worth taking a chance on, just like a chance was taken on me [when I was offered this job], then we might witness that change.

William Bratton, the ex-chief of Los Angeles and New York City, made his reputation on the “broken windows” theory of policing—if you punish minor crimes, like vandalizing, you’ll deter worse crimes later. You seem to have a similar approach, only it’s kid-based instead of property-based.
Chief Bratton’s belief was that things left unattended beget worse problems down the line. What should we be concerned about more than our children? And what could be worse than if we left them unattended? If we attend to them, they become the solution to the problem.

Clearly, one thing that this city doesn’t want is a policy like New York’s “stop-and-frisk.” Your very strong, very public stand against mayor Ed Lee this summer raised a lot of eyebrows. What happened?
I think what Mayor Lee was saying was misinterpreted. He was talking to [the Chronicle’s] editorial board, and he was asked about what action he was considering to address the violence in Visitacion Valley [where gang-related shootings killed 10 people in June and 4 on a single weekend in July]. He responded, “There is nothing I wouldn’t consider—I was recently speaking with [New York] Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg about stop-and-frisk...” and [the issue] took on a life of its own.

I believe Mayor Lee wanted to get everyone engaged in the solution, so he said he’d look at anything. But because he’s a former civil rights attorney, I also knew that what he really meant was “anything...so long as it was constitutional and respectful of everyone’s rights.” And I said that stop-and-frisk wasn’t anything we’d ever do because it has been shown to strongly suggest racial profiling. Every stop made by the SFPD would continue to be based on “reasonable suspicion,” and every search, or frisk, would be based on probable cause and/or the officer’s safety [as required by a 1968 Supreme Court decision].

In August [after much consultation], we implemented what we call the mayor’s “Interrupt, Predict, and Organize” approach to violent crime. And this year, for the first time in decades, there were no homicides in San Francisco—not one—in the month of August. [Editor’s note: There were 11 murders from September 1 through November 9, for a total of 58 so far in 2012, versus 47 for the like period last year.]

I’ve heard that Ed Lee was under a lot of pressure from the Chinese-American community not to appoint you because of your conflicts with Heather Fong. As recently as two years ago, no one could have predicted that it would ever happen—Lee being mayor or you being chief. Is it something you had always hoped for?
Not at first. I became a cop because I was raised to believe in the idea of service—it’s not about you, it’s about what you can do for those who have less than you. But I always thought I’d end up a lawyer, like a lot of my family. After I made lieutenant, when I saw things I thought begged to be addressed, I realized that the chief was the ultimate visionary and decision maker for what the department could and should be.

You mentioned to me once that you had notes that you kept in an “If I’m ever chief” file. Do you still have them?
I have a folder that I started in 2000, when I first made the command staff. They’re notes on things like how to conduct yourself, how to minimize complaints, the incidence of violent crime on rainy versus non-rainy days. My premise—which has turned out to be statistically true—was that violence should be lower when the elements drive folks inside. Shooters don’t like to get wet. Which is why, whenever we get a spike in random violence, [I] pray for rain.

Your ideas are very much those of a progressive. Yet there’s a sense that the SFPD is a red enclave in a blue city.
Because we’re doing law enforcement in this very liberal town, people assume we’re all conservatives when, really, we’re Democrats too.

Still, the SFPD that you joined in 1981 [three years after ex-cop Dan White murdered Harvey Milk and George Moscone] was a very different place. There were lawsuits and a lot of racial turmoil. What was that like?
I’m fortunate that a lot of the folks who were embittered by the process that took place during the ’80s didn’t really impact me. I was on midnights [for much of the worst of it]. The places I worked in the department—narcotics, the street crimes task force—were very diverse. You couldn’t focus on what somebody looked like because when you needed help, you needed it from whoever was nearest. Everybody was sharp. Everybody was a go-getter. I think the whole department now is much more like what I experienced back then.

An officer who in many ways exemplified the new multicultural SFPD was officer Isaac Espinoza, who was gunned down in Bayview in 2004. His death caused a lot of political ripples around things like the death penalty. It really affected you personally—you even climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in his memory. Why?
The way to explain it is that if I were to build my ideal cop from scratch, Isaac would have been it. He was a good-looking, young guy of color, full of personality, with a beautiful wife and little girl. He was engaging and athletic, a natural leader who drew people to him. When I saw the rest of his family walk behind his casket— an eclectic group of all races and economic backgrounds—it hit me that the community had a guy in Isaac who could have set the standard for a generation of cops. But violence in the very community that he loved serving is what ended up killing him.

Not long after that tragedy, you had some career setbacks, culminating when Chief Fong busted you to captain for doing what a friend, a domestic violence victim, asked you to do—delay reporting the crime for a single day because she thought that her life might be in danger if you reported it immediately. Why didn’t you quit?
I just couldn’t believe that going to the aid of a friend could ever be the wrong thing to do. When the victim in the case said she believed that I saved her life, and her mom thanked me, and my mom said she was proud of me, I knew I had the right folks understanding why I did what I did. In every instance that I have suffered some adversity, I knew what I did and didn’t do, so I knew that I would be OK. My folks always taught me to believe. In fact, the word believe is inscribed on the back of my star.

The irony is that instead of being marginalized, you came away stronger—for example, when Fong exiled you to the Public Utilities Commission. That assignment gave you a working knowledge of the city’s infrastructure that most cops never get— and it put you on the radar of some very influential people.
My own ego told me that I could be far more helpful to Heather and the department doing what I believed I was good at doing, which was being head of field operations. But if [going to the PUC was] the role the coach saw me in, that’s where I went. There had been a scathing grand jury report that the city’s water system was vulnerable to terrorist attack. I pretty much created the PUC’s homeland security section. And then, of course, Ed Lee [as city administrator] was heading up the interagency disaster recovery plan, so I got to know him very well. It was also where I learned about project management. In the private sector, you’re expected to finish jobs on time and on budget, whereas in civil service, if you give someone a project, they have 30 years to finish it, and if they don’t finish it, they leave anyway. Now as chief, when I give projects, I set deadlines.

You’ve had to get tough in other ways, like effecting the biggest work schedule change since 1986. How’s that gone?
The thing that cops like the least is change. When you tell cops who are working days and [four-day workweeks] and have 50 percent of their weekends off that they’re going to work nights and more weekends, you’d think there would be a mutiny. But I got the union to sign off on it, in part because I could say that those were the hours I had to work. [The POA’s] Gary Delagnes told the rank and file, “The best thing about having Greg Suhr as chief is that he knows everybody, he’s been around, he knows how it works. And the worst thing about having Greg Suhr as chief is that he knows everybody, he’s been around, and he knows how it works.” If people complained about getting a raw deal, I could say, “You got it tougher than I did? And look, I’m OK. If you just stay positive, things have a way of working out.”

One area where your experience really came in handy was during the Occupy protests. You were under a lot of political pressure.
If I had a nickel for every time I spoke with [progressive supervisors] John Avalos or Jane Kim in the wee hours of the morning, and every night with Mayor Lee—we all realized how invested we are in this city. You develop a mutual respect.

How did you avoid what happened with Occupy Oakland?
Anyone who knows me knows that I treat my officers like I’m personally responsible when they go outside. There was no way I was going to let them or the department become the focal point of a no-win situation that was going to take a long time to resolve. In conversations with the mayor, we decided it was better to approach Occupy from the angle of public health. We were cast as the safety officers. The way the department approached Occupy—with professionalism, restraint, and engagement—is one of the things I’m very proud of.

Speaking of keeping the city safe, San Francisco expects its police department to be on the cutting edge when it comes to crime-fighting tools, yet the SFPD just got email in 2011. How could that be?
Technology has been a problem for a long time. Back in 2003, a friend of mine—[the late] Mike Homer, one of the guys who started Netscape— advised moving to a web-based platform, as opposed to a client server created by a consultant, because by the time you got it installed, it would already be outdated. Yet we went another $10 million down the consultant road with very little to show for it. When I was appointed chief, I couldn’t believe we didn’t have a help desk; I couldn’t believe police officers making $100,000-plus were slaves to antiquated IT. I’ve almost completely privatized our IT section.

What kind of impact have you seen?
Here’s an example—a fantastic rape arrest we never would have made without IT. One night, a couple is out, and they meet a guy who somehow gives them a rape drug. When they wake up in the morning, the woman has been raped. All they know about the guy is a phone number. We plug the number into our new Google-search-capable system and discover that this same number was given by a victim of a crime that was committed on Muni last year. We get his name, look him up on Facebook, put his picture in a photo spread to ID, and make the arrest.

That’s great, but it’s exactly what I would have expected. What are the other big public safety issues you’re dealing with?
First, gun violence. We have an uptick in Norteño-Sureño gun violence in the Mission that we are working hard to beat back. Second, we have a problem with theft of electronic devices. It’s epidemic nationally, and because of it, we’re having a spike in robberies, auto burglaries. It begets the next crime. If we can get the public to guard these devices, we’d have a dramatic impact on crime rates.

Looking forward, how do you define success?
Getting a handle on the problems we’ve talked about, of course. If we can effect generational change [of the kind that makes the city safer], maybe they’ll be talking about [the San Francisco policing model] rather than New York. I want to develop cops at every rank so that, when it comes time to pick the next chief, nobody would think of going outside the SFPD. I want everybody in this police department to want my job. I want them to be doing groundbreaking things to prove that they are smarter and more capable than I am. If they do that, the department is better off, and the city is better off. I would leave a happy guy.

This was originally published in the December 2012 issue of San Francisco.

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