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Can Toney Chaplin Change the Culture of SF Police? 

Wednesday, May 25 2016
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On a weeknight in early March, the safest place in San Francisco was the United Irish Cultural Center, a country barn of a banquet hall (with requisite subterranean bar) out by the zoo in the windswept Outer Sunset. There, on Wawona Street near the ocean, about 250 San Francisco cops — over 10 percent of the city's 2,000-strong department; all active and voting members of the Police Officers Association, the city's (in)famous and influential police union — converged for the purpose of casting judgment on their then-boss, police Chief Greg Suhr.

The way that past POA president and current "public relations consultant" Gary Delagnes tells it, the cops were out for blood. They were furious at Suhr for a series of top-down reforms the chief had promised following the visually upsetting yet-by-the-book fatal police shooting of Mario Woods in December — and sent to the city's Police Commission for approval without input from the POA or its members, the people who would be tasked with carrying them out. Suhr, the longtime San Francisco police officer, "cop's cop," and choice of the POA to become chief in 2011, had fallen deeply out of a favor with his former comrades.

"They wanted to cast a vote of no-confidence in the chief," Delagnes tells SF Weekly. "They were ready."

This left Delagnes, an outspoken fellow known for firing off bellicose emails to members of the Board of Supervisors who fail to vote the POA's way, to play peacemaker — while simultaneously preventing the POA from finding common ground, albeit for very different reasons, with the "Frisco 5," the hunger strikers who attempted to shame Mayor Ed Lee into removing Suhr with a 17-day fast.

Delagnes and POA President Martin Halloran managed to talk their members off the ledge, and no vote was cast. But in the end, they were more Pontius Pilate than Herod — and Suhr's fate was sealed by a POA member after all.

Last Thursday, hours after a police sergeant fired a single shot at an allegedly stolen car containing 29-year-old Jessica Williams, an unarmed black woman — killing her and violating both the letter and the spirit of Suhr's promised reforms — Lee received Suhr's resignation. The twin blows of this latest very questionable killing — why did a sergeant shoot at a crashed car, when Suhr wanted no cars to be shot at? — and the hunger strike, which came after cops shot and killed 45-year-old Luis Gongora, a homeless man armed with a kitchen knife, in April, made Suhr into the story, and later the sacrifice.

(It was the second time Suhr offered to go, as the Chronicle later reported. The first time was after he stormed out of the City Hall rotunda during Lee's inauguration in January, after protesters — including some future members of the Frisco 5 — took over a second-floor balcony and seized the proceedings, showering Lee and his high-profile guests, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Gov. Jerry Brown, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, with shouts of "Fire Chief Suhr!")

Suhr's unfinished business is now Acting Chief Toney Chaplin's problem. A 26-year department veteran, Chaplin was a street cop — he served on the Gang Task Force and, like Suhr before him, was a narc during the SFPD's drug-arrest heyday in the 1990s — before catapulting from a homicide inspector to assistant chief in charge of implementing Suhr's reforms in just three years. At an imprompt press conference at the Ping Yuen projects in Chinatown on Friday, Chaplin made his priorities crystal-clear.

"Reform, reform, reform," he said, promising a "top-down" review of the SFPD.

Unlike Suhr, Chaplin is not from San Francisco and is not part of the city's "old boys" network. And unlike Suhr, his disciplinary record is squeaky clean, without the bevy of scandals — a dead prisoner on his watch as a lieutenant; an indictment for participating in a cover-up after some cops beat up a man carrying Mexican food; and a demotion for failing to report a DV incident — which Suhr managed to survive.

How long Chaplin will stay in the gig — or if he will be elevated from acting to "official" chief — is unclear. Some politicos are pushing for a nationwide search for a new chief. Lee has yet to indicate when he'll make a final pick.

At least for now, Chaplin has the support of the black and Latino San Franciscans who recent polls show Suhr lost. (Most white people and Asians, on the other hand, stayed in Suhr's corner.). "[Chaplin] has the character, the competency, the chemistry and the courage to lead this department," as the Rev. Amos Brown, the leader of the local NAACP — who stood by Suhr until the end — told reporters.

But that matters a lot less than what Chaplin can inspire the troops to do — or not do.

In a real way, Suhr's exit was an inside job. In his eagerness to placate the public, he lost rank-and-file cops, who lost interest in following his instructions. (And, like the blue ribbon panel assembled by ex-Chief and current District Attorney George Gascón found, somewhere along the SFPD command chain, there's a lack of accountability for cops who ignore the rules.)

And right now, on group text messages swapped among street-level officers, there's "grumbling" that Chaplin "isn't equipped" to do the job, a retired lieutenant told SF Weekly.

This is a problem. In San Francisco, the most important link in the command chain between police on the street and top brass are the sergeants, says Tony Ribera, SFPD's chief from 1992 to 1996.

"The sergeants are the key element in a police organization," he says. "They're the ones overseeing the conduct of officers on the street."

"The biggest problems we've had, historically, have been with the sergeants," he adds. "They want to be popular."

And what Suhr was doing — telling his police to do their jobs differently, to carry three-foot nightsticks to whack suspects with instead of shooting them, to create "time and space" between suspects — in short, making concessions to the public in a top-down manner, without consulting the people tasked with carrying them out — is hugely unpopular with San Francisco's uniformed police. But it wasn't so much what Suhr demanded. It was how he did it.

"We treat our people like children," says Dan Lawson, a retired San Francisco police captain now on a second career as a law-enforcement academic at the University of San Francisco (where he also runs the campus police force, called the Department of Public Safety). "It's, 'Do what I say and follow the rules.' "

"[Suhr's] changes have not been collaborative," he says. "The rank-and-file were not included. It is all about the officers and the sergeants and the lieutenants. They're the ones doing all the work without getting any of the support."

"We can come out with these policies all we want, but if the officers don't feel supported, and if it's not something they feel comfortable with, it's not going to be applied."

Suhr's inability to get his people to change their ways should serve as a warning to Chaplin, who will almost certainly receive a raft of proposed changes from the Department of Justice's COPS office, which is currently conducting a review of the SFPD — as well as political pressure from Lee and the Board of Supervisors, four members of which eventually joined the Frisco 5 in calling for Suhr to go, to make real and significant changes happen.

And as history shows, change comes slow to the police department. The last time San Francisco tried to fundamentally change the way police officers did their jobs, there was an outright riot.

Almost 40 years ago, Mayor George Moscone brought in Chief Charles Gain, who had been chief in Oakland during the rise of the Black Panthers (and whose cops cast a vote of no confidence in him there in the early 1970s).

The first police chief to carry himself as a executive of a major corporation that happened to be in the business of policing, as opposed to the uniformed generalissimo of a military force, Gain wore a Pierre Cardin suit, repainted the SFPD's black-and-white patrol cars baby blue, and replaced the SFPD star on cars with a city seal and the words "Police Services."

All that is well known. Less famously, Gain also tried to instill what academics today call "value-based" and "community policing," reforming training at the Police Academy to engage with "fringe" communities — people of color, gay people, and "radicals" — in ways other than with arrests and nightsticks.

Rank-and-file police absolutely hated it, and after the assassinations of Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, and a mere involuntary manslaughter conviction for the triggerman, ex-cop and ex-Supervisor Dan White, new Mayor Dianne Feinstein used the "White Night" riots as cover to ax Gain and bring in Cornelius Murphy — a "cop's cop," as Suhr told the Chronicle on the occasion of Murphy's death.

About the only Gain reform that lasted was the abolition of drinking on the job. Until Gain, booze flowed freely, according to Lawson, who was then a rookie cop. Cops had booze bottles stashed in desks, hidden in call boxes on the street, and "you could go into bars while you were on duty and take a shot," he says.

Then, it was all part of the culture.

And that word — "culture" — is the key. Changing police culture was the phrase seized upon by would-be reformers like Gascón and advocates for change like Public Defender Jeff Adachi (two people cops also happen to loathe). Making a culture shift will take a lot more than a change in the departmental General Orders or how cops do (or don't) receive punishment.

"This is not going to be a one- or a 2-month process," Lawson warns. "It will take years." Whether Lee or San Francisco will have that kind of patience — or if the cops rebel against Chaplin, as they did against Gain and against Suhr, or whether Lee chooses someone else — remains to be seen.


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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