San Francisco police chief may be in jeopardy

San Francisco wikimediaSan Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr’s future has come into doubt in recent days as four members of his city’s 12-member Board of Supervisors have joined protesters in calling for his ouster. Now newspaper analysis pieces are wondering how long Mayor Ed Lee will stick by Suhr, whom he promoted to chief in 2011.

The biggest controversies hanging over the SFPD: the fatal shooting of an unthreatening burglary suspect that was caught on video in December, the fatal shooting of a homeless man in murkier circumstances in April, and two rounds of revelations about racist and anti-gay text messages sent by police officers.

Until a week ago, Suhr was in an odd middle ground. He was under fire from activists but also from his own officers, whose union depicts him as a coward who refuses to stick up for a police force that by and large acts professionally.

However, the local political establishment seemed generally in his corner, including some prominent commentators. Suhr was seen as a relative source of stability in a city rocked by an ongoing investigation of a massive corruption scandal that took down state Sen. Leland Yee, among others, and appears to be zeroing in on Mayor Lee.

Making officers promise not to be racists

Despite years of criticism from San Francisco’s progressive media, Suhr wins praise from some San Franciscans for seeming to have his heart in the right place. Agreeing with some of protesters’ complaints, he formally requested a U.S. Justice Department review of his department, which is now underway. Suhr also drew national headlines for his policy of having officers take an annual pledge not to be racist or intolerant.

Yet critics says the kindest possible assessment is that Suhr may be a good person, but he is in over his head in dealing with a department mired in the past — specifically the ugly culture of big-city 20th-century police departments. Some outsiders surveying the situation agree. 

“If you have a poorly managed department without standards of accountability, everybody sinks to the bottom,” Samuel Walker, a retired criminal justice professor from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, told the Associated Press.

But in Mayor Lee’s most direct comments on the matter earlier this month, he disagreed. “I just don’t believe that having a different chief automatically gains the kind of groundwork that we are already gaining with the reforms that we have,” Lee said at a news conference in which he announced new policies meant to lead to fewer police shootings.

Willie Brown backs chief

The San Francisco political heavyweight offering the loudest support for Suhr is Willie Brown, the African American former mayor and Assembly speaker. This is from his Saturday column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

I feel sorry for Police Chief Greg Suhr.

From the tone of the attacks against him, you’d think he was the guy who put 20-plus bullets into Mario Woods [the suspect shot in December]. That he was one of the guys sending out racist texts. That he personally ordered the stopping and frisking of every person of color in the city.

In truth, he’s one of the most progressive police chiefs the city has seen in decades.

But every time he makes a move to reform the SFPD’s culture, whether it be to improve racial sensitivity or come up with smarter use-of-force policies, he’s overshadowed by another story about some cop’s inappropriate behavior.

The 82-year-old California political legend also took a pointed shot at the protesters.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin suggested at a recent board meeting that they bring in me to broker a peace deal between Mayor Ed Lee’s administration and the Black Lives Matter people, as I did during the last labor stalemate at Muni.

Are you kidding? Muni drivers are rational geniuses compared with these protesters.

Suhr appears safe for now — unless there is another dubious fatal shooting or still more racist police text messages emerge. That could prove the last straw.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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