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Friday, May 20, 2016

Should S.F. Elect its Police Chief?

Posted By on Fri, May 20, 2016 at 10:23 AM

click to enlarge On the campaign trail. - MIKE KOOZMIN/SF EXAMINER FILE
  • Mike Koozmin/SF Examiner file
  • On the campaign trail.
When he fired police Chief Greg Suhr on Thursday and appointed an interim replacement a few hours after police shot and killed an unarmed black woman suspected of stealing a car, Mayor Ed Lee was bending to the will of the public and to a growing number of politicians calling for Suhr to go. The buck stopped with Lee, who alone has the power to hire and fire the chief. (Yes, the Police Commission has to approve his appointments, but Lee can also fire police commissioners.) 

It’s worth noting that the public drama over San Francisco's police chief happened this way because the position is appointed — and not elected, like the sheriff, district attorney, and Lee himself. All major U.S. cities appoint a police chief, but at least in the Bay Area, there's an elected chief: in Santa Clara. 

What if San Francisco also elected the chief and made the position directly responsible to the voters, whose safety and lives they put in the chief's hands?

It might seem tantalizing for voters to have the power to pick this important position, especially in a city with an engaged voting population like San Francisco — and one that wants a direct say in how policing is carried out — but that oversimplifies the job.

The clearest and perhaps strongest position for appointing police chiefs plays right into San Francisco’s current dialogue over the job. The Frisco 5 spent more than two weeks on a hunger strike in the name of replacing Suhr because, hypothetically, they could persuade someone in city government — Mayor Ed Lee — to fire the chief.

Lee made sure to point out that his decision Thursday had nothing to do with the hunger strike, which is what one would expect him to say. But the point is, Toney Chaplin would not have the interim chief job today if Suhr were an elected leader.

In that case, he could only be replaced through a recall election or if he himself resigned from the elected position.

Another mark against electing police chiefs is that it would politicize the position (even more so than it is already). This actually has two possible detrimental outcomes, one being that the position would inherently be sought by politicians and not lawmen (and women), and also that someone would have to be a resident of the city in which they were running for police chief. That would rule out nationwide searches for the best chief, and would have prevented chiefs like current DA George Gascon from coming to San Francisco.

But since the position is appointed, the city is free to hire anyone from anywhere in the world, thus making the candidate pool stronger. And do you want a politician running your police department? In the case of the sheriff job, that did not seem to work with Ross Mirkarimi since he was voted out of office after one term.

Lastly, the mayor is making this decision, and he was elected by the people. So in essence his choice of police chief reflects the will of the voters. Arguments could certainly be made that this is merely the on-paper version of life, and the reality is Lee or any other mayor is going to pick the person they want in the job.

But that discounts the very real fact that Lee, even if he says the Frisco 5 had nothing to do with Suhr’s ouster, reacted to the current climate of San Francisco by appointing an African-American man who has recently led reforms in the department and has been a deputy chief for only a short time, even if he’s been a San Francisco cop since 1990. Chaplin, in a way, is an outsider inside a police force fraught with turmoil.

And not that elected chiefs are necessarily democratic: in Santa Clara, the current chief ran for election unopposed.

Whether Chaplin keeps the job or not is up to Lee and whomever is advising the mayor. But at least it didn’t take an expensive and lengthy recall election to move the department in a new direction.
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Max DeNike

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