San Francisco Needs a New Police Chief

05/09/2016 12:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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San Francisco is a very special place. Diverse, colorful, dynamic, and in a period of rapid change, the policing needs of San Francisco are likewise unique. We have high numbers of mentally ill, intoxicated, and homeless people. We are a very divided city. And we are an international city with many immigrants and foreign visitors.

We need a police force that respects all people and can resolve conflict without escalating it. We need a police force that reflects San Francisco's values of compassion, freedom of expression, and innovation. We need a mental health care system and homeless shelter system that compassionately cares for our most vulnerable citizens.

Most of all, we need a police force we can trust. According to President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, "Trust between law enforcement agencies and the people they protect and serve is essential in a democracy. It is key to the stability of our communities, the integrity of our criminal justice system, and the safe and effective delivery of policing services."

Mayor Ed Lee appointed Greg Suhr Chief of Police in April 2011. Reflecting on his five year tenure, it is clear that Greg Suhr is no longer the right person to lead SFPD.

Greg Suhr's leadership has been marked by SFPD's excessive use of force, racism, resistance to reform, and lack of cooperation with the District Attorney.

Chief Greg Suhr is so uncomfortable facing the public that last week he cancelled his appearance at a Police Accountability Forum hosted by Michael Krasny at Congregation Sherith Israel in Pacific Heights for "security reasons."

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Public Defender Jeff Adachi said at the Forum that "Today, San Francisco is in a state of crisis because our Police Department has no legitimacy."

The texting scandals and excessive use of force have led both the US Department of Justice COPS office and the District Attorney's Blue Ribbon Panel to review SFPD. Soon they will issue recommendations.

But without an effective leader who can hold all SFPD officers accountable for implementing the changes, the reforms will have no impact and police-community relations will continue to deteriorate.

Chief Greg Suhr cannot implement the reforms, both because he is responsible for the current SFPD culture and because when he tries to change SFPD, officers ignore him.

To be clear, replacing Chief Suhr will not in and of itself fix SFPD's many problems, but it will send a strong signal to the community and to SFPD officers that a new era has come to SFPD. It is important that the community provide input on what to look for in a new chief and who the new chief is.

SFPD needs a leader who waits for the facts before exculpating officers.

Under Chief Suhr's tenure, SFPD has killed 21 people, at least four of which involved a very rapid escalation and/or excessive use of force: Alex Nieto (shot 59 times, police opened fire within 2 minutes of arriving on scene), Amilcar Perez Lopez (shot 6 times in the back), Mario Woods (shot 20 times), and Luis Gongora Demetrio Pat (shot 7 times, police opened fire within 22 seconds of arriving on scene).

Officers feel they can shoot with immunity in part because they have strong legal and union protection. A jury found that the officers were reasonable and did not use excessive force when they shot Alex Nieto 59 times. The officers who killed Mario Woods in December returned to work in January.

They also feel immune because every time there is an officer-involved shooting Chief Suhr rushes to exculpate the officers involved instead of waiting for an investigation to reveal the facts.

For example, Chief Suhr claimed the officers shot Amilcar Perez Lopez in self-defense. The autopsy and further investigation revealed Amilcar, who exclusively spoke Spanish, was shot 6 times in the back by plainclothes officers who spoke to him only in English as he was trying to retrieve his stolen cell phone.

Chief Suhr's rush to support involved officers before knowing the facts has undermined his credibility and SFPD's legitimacy in the community. The clear message to SFPD: you can kill with impunity. The result: the many SFPD deaths on his watch.

A leader who explains the facts and does not exonerate without knowledge is needed to restore SFPD's legitimacy.

SFPD needs a leader who respects all people and establishes respect as a cultural norm.

Last week, the public learned the content of the most recent racist texts exchanged by SFPD officers, obtained during an unrelated investigation.

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The officers involved in the 2015 racist text scandal, also discovered during an unrelated investigation, remain on the job because although Internal Affairs had access to the texts, they declined to investigate them and the statute of limitations ran out.

On March 10, 2016, the day the jury reached the "no excessive use of force" verdict in the Alex Nieto case, one of the charged officers made this Facebook post:

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The racism, dehumanization of the public, and complete disregard for ethics, rules, and common sense displayed by SFPD officers is completely unacceptable.

Messages like these are both wrong and not tolerated in other organizational cultures.

Many SFPD officers, who carry guns, clearly feel that they can send these messages with impunity, causing the public to fear SFPD and leading both District Attorney George Gascón and Public Defender Jeff Adachi to call SFPD "systemically racist." It is rare for a District Attorney and Public Defender to agree on anything.

Last week, Mayor Ed Lee sent SFPD officers a letter asking them to be less bigoted and Chief Greg Suhr, flanked by members of the San Francisco Police Commission, said that all officers will receive two hours of "harassment training".

I am a professional anti-bias trainer and it is impossible to imagine that such measures will have any consequence.

A leader who respects people and who establishes respect as a cultural norm is needed to change the culture of SFPD.

SFPD needs a leader who can hold officers accountable for implementing reforms.

SFPD's current use of force policy, last updated in 1995, states in part:
"When the use of force is necessary and appropriate, officers shall, to the
extent possible, utilize an escalating scale of options and not employ more
forceful measures unless it is determined that a lower level of force would
not be adequate, or such a level of force is attempted and actually found to
be inadequate."

In 2013 Chief Suhr issued a Department Bulletin, "Response to Mental Health Calls With Armed Suspects" that says in relevant part "if officers have reasonable cause to believe that the person suffering an apparent mental crisis is not a threat to any other person the officers shall observe, maintain a safe distance, and attempt to stabilize the scene until the arrival of the Supervisor who will assume command."

In the wake of Mario Woods December 2, 2015 killing, the San Francisco Police Commission recommended a change in use of force policy announced February 22, 2016. Chief Suhr claims he has been continuously emphasizing the time and distance of the 2013 directive.

The San Francisco Police Officers Association was immediately defiant and issued its own proposed use of force policy on April 6, 2016.

One day later, SFPD struck again, killing Luis Gongora Demetrio Pat within 22 seconds of arriving on the scene.

Whether the police involved violated the use of force policy will be determined by an investigation.

It is hard to imagine however that the officers who initiated gunfire within 22 seconds of arriving had any motivation to create time and distance.

SFPD needs a new leader who is serious about time and distance and ensures all officers are trained, comply, and are held accountable when they don't. Again Chief Suhr rushed to exculpate the officers involved in Luis' death, further deteriorating SFPD legitimacy.

SFPD needs a leader who cooperates with partners and holds officers accountable for cooperating with investigators.

Cooperation between the District Attorney and the Police Department is essential for effective law enforcement.

In San Francisco, Chief Suhr and District Attorney George Gascón, who previously served as Chief of SFPD, are engaged in a very public dispute.

The outcome is that District Attorney Gascón's investigation of SFPD has been delayed by stonewalling. Officers who comply with investigators are intimidated by other officers and the Police Officers Association.

A new leader who interacts with colleagues in a professional manner is needed to lead SFPD.

A large and growing number of voices are pressing for SFPD accountability.

Concerned San Franciscans, including the #Frisco5 hunger strikers, the Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition, the Justice 4 Alex Nieto Coalition, and the Justice 4 Amilcar Perez Lopez Coalition have attended every meeting of the Police Commission, the Blue Ribbon Panel appointed by District Attorney George Gascón, and the United States Department of Justice COPS Collaborative Review.

We have provided hours of testimony about the need for new leadership of San Francisco Police Department that demonstrates respect for citizens, the law, and public officials. We have urged Mayor Ed Lee and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to rein in SFPD. We have petitioned to US Attorney General Loretta Lynch to conduct a civil rights pattern and practice investigation. We have petitioned to California Attorney General Kamala Harris to investigate and reorganize SFPD under consent decree.

We have asked District Attorney George Gascón to charge the police involved in the Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, Mario Woods, and Luis Gongora Demetrio Pat shootings with murder.

Noone has done what we have asked and no amount of public input through existing channels has created urgency for new leadership of SFPD. The San Francisco Police Officers Association, the police union, is very powerful and every official wants to appease it.

Finally, out of frustration, on April 21, 2016 the #Frisco5 launched a hunger strike to demand that Mayor Ed Lee fire Chief Suhr or resign. They want to prevent another black or brown person from losing their life at the hands of SFPD.

On May 5, 2016, Mayor Ed Lee told the hunger strikers he has no intention of firing Chief Suhr and stands by his leadership. The next day the hunger strikers were hospitalized and advised by doctors that their fast is having health-altering consequences.

On May 8, 2015, Day 17, the #Frisco5 announced their hunger strike is over.

On May 11, 2016, the San Francisco Police Commission, the other entity that has authority to remove Chief Suhr will meet.

The agenda includes a "Personnel Matters" section but no "Chief Suhr Performance Review" as an agenda item.

If you agree we need a new leader who reflects San Francisco's values to restore the public's confidence in SFPD, please contact the members of the SF Police Commission and urge them to remove Chief Suhr at their May 11, 2016 meeting:

Main number: (415) 837-7070 SFPD.Commission@sfgov.org
Suzy Loftus, President (415) 703-5500 Suzy.Loftus@doj.ca.gov @suzyloftus
L. Julius M. Turman, Vice President 415-837-7070 SFPD.Commission@sfgov.org
Thomas Mazzucco 415.788.1900 tmazzucco@mpbf.com
Petra De Jesus (877) 995-6372 pdejesus@kazanlaw.com
Joe Marshall (415) 826-8664 drj@stayaliveandfree.org
Victor Hwang (415) 595-6081 Hwang@justice.com
Sonia Melara (415) 338-1005 smelara@sfsu.edu

You can also contact Mayor Ed Lee at 415-554-6141 mayoredwinlee@sfgov.org @mayoredlee and try to persuade him to fire Chief Suhr (good luck!)