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The Outsider 

George Gascon is S.F.'s first police chief in 30 years who wasn't homegrown — and he's promising big changes. Criminals and lazy cops, you have been warned.

Wednesday, Jul 22 2009

During the past seven years, incoming San Francisco police chief George Gascon has, in some respects, operated as an up-to-date version of the kind and composed, wise and wily sheriff played by Andy Griffith in his self-named 1960s sitcom.

In 2002 Gascon, who was then a commander in the Los Angeles Police Department, co-led an ethics course described by one official as having "the right balance of altruism and realism," just as one might imagine Mayberry Sheriff Andy Taylor doing.

In 2008, when Gascon was chief of the Mesa, Arizona, police department, an article in Phoenix New Times described how he used psychological jujitsu to turn the tables on his unpleasant foe, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, just as Taylor did when outsiders made mischief in Mayberry.

When Arpaio attempted to paint Gascon as soft on immigration by sending deputies to round up Mesa's Mexicans, Gascon countered by assigning 132 of his own officers to supervise the sweep. The resulting media attention made Arpaio look foolish.

By the time Gascon, 55, accepted the San Francisco police chief job last month, he'd earned a reputation in Mesa for keeping his finger on the pulse of the community so he could count on locals' help when things went wrong, just as Griffith's fictional sheriff always did.

But Gascon is no Sheriff Taylor in one very important respect: He has no patience for the people he has judged to be among the Barney Fifes of the world.

Notwithstanding the warm, progressive image Gascon has cultivated among the public, Mesa Police Department critics say he is a ruthless boss with dramatic plans to change the way San Francisco fights crime.

In order to build his own team in Mesa — in the face of rules that didn't allow for easy reassignments — Gascon's critics say he derailed the law enforcement careers of out-of-favor veteran officers so he could install his own command staff. By the end of his first year in Mesa, he had compelled the retirements of 10 of his top 14 commanders.

Thirty-year veteran Hector Federico was among those who decided the time was right to leave. He expects to see a similar purge among San Francisco police commanders. "I think 60 percent of the staff members that are there now will be reassigned or move on," he said.

Adds former Mesa police commander Ron Kirby, who retired in 2007 after 26 years with the force: "In San Francisco, I think you'll see the same model. He's done his homework on the command staff. And he'll be looking to replace individuals so he'll have people to work for him."

Gascon, who begins his new job during the first part of August, suggests I should weigh with skepticism the complaints of disgruntled ex-Mesa officers. But he doesn't fully dismiss predictions that he's come to San Francisco to clean house.

"I am in the process of fact finding," he said in an interview last week. "I'm trying to assess the weaknesses of various members of the team, and of the organization as a whole, and figure out what would be appropriate steps to take. Every coin has two sides. There is also the other side — there were a lot of opportunities for those who are willing to innovate and work hard."

When I spoke to Gascon, he had already placed an LAPD information systems expert inside the SFPD to help gauge needed areas of improvement. San Francisco has an exceptionally low "clearance rate," a term defined by the U.S. Department of Justice as when a suspect is arrested, charged, and turned over for prosecution. In 2002, the homicide detail cleared half its cases, while the similar-sized-city average was 61 percent. In 2007, it cleared 25 percent when the average was 53 percent.

"The clearance rates for violent crimes in San Francisco are unacceptable. They are very low by industry standards. Why are those rates very low? I'm not going to speculate. I'm going to figure out a way to improve them," Gascon said, adding that he has a message for San Francisco officers, and he wants it to be "communicated very clearly: I have no patience for people who are retired on the job. If you are retired on the job, you are going to have problems with me. Those who want to work hard are going to be revitalized. It's going to be a lot of fun."

Gascon is the first police chief hired from outside the department in more than 30 years. The last outsider, Charles Gain, took over in 1975 and tried to soften the department's reputation for brutality. Five years later, he left with a reputation for frivolousness, with exhibit A being a proposal to paint squad cars a friendly shade of baby blue.

Notwithstanding, Police Commission president Theresa Sparks said she and her colleagues interviewed candidates who were interested in a new approach to law enforcement. During his interview, Gascon wasn't shy about his intention to create major changes of a sort an insider with political ties to the department might have a harder time making.

"I think he's going to give everyone an opportunity," Sparks said. "But I also think he's going to choose his own team. I don't know if it means the same kind of upheaval they had in Mesa, but I do think that change can be kind of positive."

Sparks said that the commission might seek changes in the city's administrative code, making it easier for Gascon to hire department outsiders to serve on his command staff. "I think it's his intent to bring in an outsider," she said.

"I believe San Francisco is a world-class city," Gascon said. "And San Francisco has no reason to have the level of crime it has. It has all the tools to be the safest city in America, and I'm going to do everything I can to make that a truism."

While Gascon was ruthlessly cleaning house in Mesa, the incompetence of San Francisco's police department was becoming the talk of the nation.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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