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After the Mario Woods Shooting, Chief Greg Suhr Pledges to Reform the SFPD 

Wednesday, Jan 6 2016

San Francisco police havetrouble with racial bias. Police need to better handle encounters with the mentally-ill and with suspects armed only with knives — and above all, the police need to never have another encounter like the Dec. 2 shooting that left a 26-year-old African-American, Mario Woods, dead on a Bayview street.

These declarations are coming from police Chief Greg Suhr.

"We'd like to never kill anybody," the chief told SF Weekly during a one-on-one interview in his office at the city's new police headquarters in Mission Bay. "Any one of these shootings so severely damages our trust with the public."

It has been just over a month since Woods — a recently incarcerated ex-offender who police "know" to have been the aggressor in an earlier stabbing that day, Suhr said — was shot 20 times by at least five officers in a grisly spectacle that some city elected officials have compared to a firing squad.

Woods's was one of six fatal officer-involved shootings in San Francisco in 2015, but it has become a local flashpoint in the national narrative of young black men dying at the hands of police in Chicago, Cleveland, and elsewhere across the country.

Captured on video and disseminated on social media, Woods's death has led to a federal lawsuit against the SFPD and to calls for police policy to be overhauled — as well as calls from Black Lives Matter activists for the officers involved to be prosecuted and Suhr to resign or be fired by Mayor Ed Lee. (The chief dismissed rumors he may retire this year and says he "hopes" to remain chief through the end of 2016).

The chief has taken heat from supervisors such as Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents the Bayview, for so quickly defending his officers without waiting for the results of the three investigations by the police department's homicide unit, the District Attorney, and the Office of Citizens' Complaints currently underway. (The officers say that Woods, still armed with a knife, advanced quickly on them, which many critics who've watched the video, including the ACLU, dispute.)

"I didn't say that," Suhr says now. "I said that the policy states officers are allowed to defend themselves if they believe to be in risk of immediate serious injury or death."

Besides quibbling with the media, Suhr does not appear to be digging in or hiding behind the thin blue line. Instead, he appears to be opening the door for necessary scrutiny, review, and change.

"I don't think there's any argu-ing – when you see the video of Mario Woods's shooting, you wouldn't be normal if that wasn't upsetting," Suhr said. "Whether you were a police officer or not, whether you were the chief or not."

Shortly after Woods died, Suhr announced a new policy — in the works since October, police say — that mandates a written report every time an officer pulls a gun, whether or not it is fired. On New Year's Eve, Suhr announced that, in concert with a hand-picked "forum" of ministers, nonprofit activists, and other black leaders, the U.S. Justice Department has been invited to conduct a review and issue recommendations on the department's "policies, procedures, and training."

And Suhr vowed to personally change, without waiting for a review or a policy recommendation from the experts, the way that police handle an encounter with citizens armed with edged weapons.

"If we can figure out a way to navigate those situations short of deadly force, it will be a huge achievement for law enforcement in this country," he said, noting the Dec. 27 incident in which Chicago police shot and killed a woman armed with a bat. "That policy will change."

Suhr also readily admits that there is racial bias in the department — a fact that's hard to dispute in light of overwhelmingly skewed rates of black and brown arrest and incarceration, even if the racist and sexist text messages sent by officers Suhr is still seeking to fire hadn't come to light (the officers are currently suspended; the city is appealing a lower court's decision that the department waited too long to impose discipline).

"It's an acknowledgement that there's bias," he said, adding that he is still reviewing the department for other officers who sympathize with the texters.

Observers say Suhr's reaction to Woods's death — calling it a tragedy, acknowledging the damage done to the public trust and the ability to conduct police work in low-income communities of color, vowing it will never happen again and making moves to ensure it doesn't — has no parallel elsewhere in America.

"It's unprecedented," says Joe Marshall, a longtime Police Commissioner and cofounder of the Omega Boys Club, which claims credit for sending 200 young black male San Franciscans to college.

"Look at any other city," he says. "Look at Baltimore, look at Ferguson, look at Chicago, Cincinnati. And just see. I don't think in any other city that, number one, the chief would say these things, and number two, the chief would do these things."

"I don't know, in the history of police, a department actually calling in the DOJ to investigate. Usually, the police don't want anyone coming into their business," says Board of Supervisors President London Breed, who has criticized Suhr's response to the shooting. "It's a good first step."

But will it work?

It won't quiet things down, at least not for now.

"Blood has already been spilled," said Adante Pointer, an attorney with the office of John Burris, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of Gwendolyn Woods and Mario Woods's other family members last month.

"You have a department where the culture appears to be one that's hostile to minorities," he said, noting the timing of the "necessary" changes — right after a high-profile shooting.

"We don't have much confidence in the department changing," he said. "Mario Woods was just the latest — not the first... from a community that's overpoliced, it's just a kneejerk reaction."

And anti-Suhr activists — including union organizers with the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the city's largest public employee union; as well as ministers with the local, Oakland-based branch of the Nation of Islam — plan to crash Mayor Ed Lee's inauguration ceremonies on Friday at City Hall, where they'll again call for Suhr's resignation or removal.

Similar demonstrations went on at last month's Police Commission meeting, at City Hall on Christmas Eve, and were planned for last night's commission meeting, held after press deadline. At least for now, no elected officials have joined in the chorus to can Suhr — perhaps because there's no ready alternative.

"That's the easy thing to do — fire the coach," Marshall says. "Let's say he's a sacrificial lamb. Then what? Hiring a new chief would take four to six months. That would take all of our time — and then we wouldn't be able to vote on reform. And then we might not find anyone better!"

Substantive change may require a long-term investment. Suhr is a product of the city's old boy network of Catholic schools, but can now rattle off numbers like a cop schooled in the style of current New York City police Commissioner Bill Bratton's data-driven policing (such as his predecessor, current DA George Gascón) — and espouses a soft, very "San Francisco values" solution to the question of bias engrained in the cultures of police and the street.

"Not to be corny, but it's still about education, opportunity, and employment," he said, noting that children exposed to violence suffer a form of PTSD that makes it hard to complete school – and that high school dropouts are a vast majority of homicide victims, suspects, and ultimately prison inmates. "It really is about the kids... this is something where, 15 years from now, we'll see if I'm right."0x2029His critics won't wait that long, and seem assured to grow in number unless substantive results come this year.

"I'm open to working with [Suhr], but we need to do better," Breed said. "We need major changes, now."


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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