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Year in Preview: Will Greg Suhr Leave the SFPD Before He Fixes It? 

Wednesday, Dec 30 2015
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The Bayview rescued Greg Suhr. Now, it may be the Bayview that sinks him.

Demoted from command staff to captain and exiled to the San Francisco Police Department's version of Siberia for failing to properly report a domestic violence incident, Suhr — a career cop who joined the force after graduating from St. Ignatius High School and the University of San Francisco — was given a second chance in 2009 by then-police Chief George Gascón: command of Bayview police station, one of the department's busiest.

Two years later, Mayor Ed Lee named a redeemed Suhr to succeed Gascón as chief. But 2015, Suhr's fourth full year on the job, was easily his most difficult — and one of the most challenging for the SFPD in recent memory.

Dirty cops found guilty on federal corruption charges were discovered to have swapped racist and bigoted text messages with other cops still on the force. A joint DEA-SFPD task force in the Tenderloin was found to have arrested only black people, fueling longstanding suspicions of racial bias within the police department.

And then in December, Mario Woods, a 26-year-old black man in the Bayview, died after being shot at least 20 times by five police officers — an encounter captured on video and posted to social media.

Suhr was quick to defend his officers, saying that Woods, armed with a knife, had approached police with his arms raised. That account was refuted within 10 days by further video evidence that appears to show that Woods's arm was down when the first bullet was fired.

Woods's death, and Suhr's quick defense of his officers — without waiting for the results of multiple investigations into the incident — have sparked calls for Suhr to resign or be fired. It has also raised questions, as attorneys for Woods's family filed a federal lawsuit against the city and the police department, of whether trust with communities of color can ever be restored.

Board of Supervisors President London Breed grew up in public housing in the Western Addition, and remembers stories of police planting drugs on people and witnessed police beatings, leading to a culture where poor people and people of color were afraid to engage with the police, on any level.

"We worked very hard to develop a relationship and to try and change the culture of the department," she says. "And now look at what's happening."

Breed is deeply unsatisfied with Suhr's handling of the Woods shooting. "He cannot be immediately protecting his members because not all of his members are doing the right thing," she says. "I think we can do better. We have to do better."

There were six fatal officer-involved shootings in San Francisco in 2015, over double the national average, according to national reform groups. A lawsuit alleges that one of the dead, 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant Amilcar Perez-Lopez, was shot in the back, contrary to police reports that stated he lunged forward at officers. (Meanwhile, property crime, including auto theft and auto break-ins, has soared.)

The outrage over Woods' death is not contained to black people or to some anarchist or militant fringe. The city's Labor Council — a coalition of public employees and trades workers, which still carries significant political weight in San Francisco — recently called for the federal and state Justice Departments to conduct an investigation into Woods' death, and for the officers involved to be prosecuted "to the fullest extent of the law, up to and including charging them with murder." (That prompted a blistering reply from the city's police union, which dubbed the council "idiotic, divisive, and unprofessional" and threatened to sever all ties.)

This latest fiasco also came at a time when change had finally begun to creep into the notoriously old-school Police Department (which did not have email for all officers until 2011).

In 2016, officers in contact with the public will at long last be equipped with body cameras, the biggest change in police equipment in San Francisco since police swapped out their six-shooter revolvers for modern pistols.

But at the same time, though cops must now report to superiors whenever they aim a gun at someone, the SFPD's use-of-force policies have not been seriously reconsidered in decades.

"There have been no changes to police procedure since 1995," said Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents the Bayview (and who is black). "We are more than overdue in taking a serious look at re-evaluating the police."

Woods' death has rekindled demands from the Police Officers Association, the city's reactionary but politically influential police union, that cops be issued Tasers; Mayor Ed Lee has suggested they also be given shields.

That is insufficient for politicians and people of color, who are calling for a widespread culture change as well as a revision of how police engage with the public and use force.

Whether or not Suhr will be around to see them revised is uncertain: There is growing talk at City Hall and at the Hall of Justice that Suhr, who has been a police officer for almost 35 years, is seriously considering retirement in 2016.

In interviews, police officers close to headquarters and members of the Police Commission believe Suhr will stick it out; other past and current officers believe that Suhr has more incentive than ever to call it a career — and may do so sometime after August, the first anniversary of his marriage to longtime partner Wendy Kleinman (after she becomes eligible for some of the benefits earned over his career).

"He is just not the kind of person to step away at a moment like this," says Suzy Loftus, the president of the city's Police Commission. "I would expect him to stay until the department is in a better place."

"The police department can't do its job if there's broken trust," Loftus added. "We don't have a choice. We have to heal. We have to build it back."

Suhr was not available for comment for this article. (The chief did agree to an interview on Dec. 31, two days after press deadline.)

As the furor over Woods's death continues — protests at the Hall of Justice on Dec. 17 were followed by actions at City Hall on Dec. 24 and at police headquarters on Dec. 29 — there does appear to be momentum for further change to come to the SFPD.

The Police Executive Research Forum, a nationwide think tank on police tactics, is comparing the SFPD's tactics to 150 other departments across the country. Revisions to department general orders on the use of force will come in 2016, Loftus said.

And Suhr has made serious moves to clean out problem cops. Last spring, he called for the eight officers involved in the text messaging scandal to be fired. (A judge ruled Dec. 21 that the department, which first learned of the texts in 2012, waited too long to take action; Suhr has vowed to appeal.)

If, a year from now, police in San Francisco wear cameras and engage with the public differently, some will see the changes as genuine progress. But there are still doubts as to whether Suhr — or any one person — can rehabilitate a problem that some say is ingrained in generations of police culture.

"What the hell difference will a new chief make," one politico asked, "when the whole culture is fucked up?"

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Bio:
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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