12/03/2012 01:32 am ET Updated Feb 01, 2013

Greg Suhr: Hail To The Well-Paid, Politically-Respected Chief

This article comes to us courtesy of San Francisco magazine.

By Bennett Cohen

IN THE MOVIE VERSION OF SFPD CHIEF Greg Suhr's improbable career, the lead would go to Bruce Willis--a square-jawed, middle-aged white guy who makes up in swagger for what he lacks in hair. The city's top cop looks like a throwback to the San Francisco that the '60s forgot, but he sounds like a "closet social worker," as his good friend, ex-supervisor Bevan Dufty, puts it--a combination that has made him that rarest of things in this ultra-left city: a police chief whom almost everyone seems to be rooting for.

More than that, Suhr may be the most powerful chief in at least a generation. "It's like only Nixon can go to China," says Peter Keane, UC Hastings law professor, former chief assistant public defender and police commissioner, and frequent critic of the department. "He doesn't have to watch his back with the old-boy network. So he can reach out and do the kinds of things that someone else couldn't do." In the nearly two years since Suhr's appointment, these changes have involved forcing cops to work more days--and nights. "A lot of them are really pissed off," acknowledges Gary Delagnes, head of the Police Officers Association (POA) union, who worked the narcotics detail with Suhr during the dangerous crack cocaine years. Even so, Delagnes adds, morale is strong. "Greg's worked his way up through the system, he's been through shit himself, he understands what makes cops tick, and he understands San Francisco. And when you're chief, those are the most important things."

In a very real way, Suhr's influence derives from the power of his personal narrative. There's the impeccable Catholic-cop pedigree: His great-grandfather founded Tadich Grill in the 1880s; his grandfather served on the Board of Supervisors a century ago; and he attended St. Ignatius and USF and played football at City College. (He still lives a two-minute walk from the Sunset neighborhood where he grew up.) There's the accident of his early years in the department: He joined in 1981, during a particularly divisive era, but spent most of his career in units where everyone had to get along, and the lessons he took away still resonate.

Finally, there's the way his career was nearly derailed time and again during the past decade--first by Fajitagate, when he and most of the command staff were indicted and then exonerated in a department-wide scandal that started with a fight over takeout food; and later by then-police chief Heather Fong, who banished and demoted him for supposed mistakes in judgment (unfairly, his fellow officers fumed). Anyone else would have quit in disgust and tripled his salary as a consultant. But Suhr toughed it out. "The setbacks seasoned him," Dufty says. "He never lost faith in being a police officer. Every day he walks in with the same idealism and enthusiasm he brought back in the 1980s. And that sets a very important tone."

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