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Hail to the Well-Paid, Cop-Loved, Politically Respected Chief
Bennett Cohen | Photo: Ramin Rahimian | November 27, 2012
Greg Suhr earns more than any other police chief in the nation. And the strange thing is, nobody’s complaining.
Your ideas are very much those of a progressive. Yet there’s a sense that the SFPD is a red enclave in a blue city.
Because we’re doing law enforcement in this very liberal town, people assume we’re all conservatives when, really, we’re Democrats too.
Still, the SFPD that you joined in 1981 [three years after ex-cop Dan White murdered Harvey Milk and George Moscone] was a very different place. There were lawsuits and a lot of racial turmoil. What was that like?
I’m fortunate that a lot of the folks who were embittered by the process that took place during the ’80s didn’t really impact me. I was on midnights [for much of the worst of it]. The places I worked in the department—narcotics, the street crimes task force—were very diverse. You couldn’t focus on what somebody looked like because when you needed help, you needed it from whoever was nearest. Everybody was sharp. Everybody was a go-getter. I think the whole department now is much more like what I experienced back then.
An officer who in many ways exemplified the new multicultural SFPD was officer Isaac Espinoza, who was gunned down in Bayview in 2004. His death caused a lot of political ripples around things like the death penalty. It really affected you personally—you even climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in his memory. Why?
The way to explain it is that if I were to build my ideal cop from scratch, Isaac would have been it. He was a good-looking, young guy of color, full of personality, with a beautiful wife and little girl. He was engaging and athletic, a natural leader who drew people to him. When I saw the rest of his family walk behind his casket— an eclectic group of all races and economic backgrounds—it hit me that the community had a guy in Isaac who could have set the standard for a generation of cops. But violence in the very community that he loved serving is what ended up killing him.
Not long after that tragedy, you had some career setbacks, culminating when Chief Fong busted you to captain for doing what a friend, a domestic violence victim, asked you to do—delay reporting the crime for a single day because she thought that her life might be in danger if you reported it immediately. Why didn’t you quit?
I just couldn’t believe that going to the aid of a friend could ever be the wrong thing to do. When the victim in the case said she believed that I saved her life, and her mom thanked me, and my mom said she was proud of me, I knew I had the right folks understanding why I did what I did. In every instance that I have suffered some adversity, I knew what I did and didn’t do, so I knew that I would be OK. My folks always taught me to believe. In fact, the word believe is inscribed on the back of my star.
The irony is that instead of being marginalized, you came away stronger—for example, when Fong exiled you to the Public Utilities Commission. That assignment gave you a working knowledge of the city’s infrastructure that most cops never get— and it put you on the radar of some very influential people.
My own ego told me that I could be far more helpful to Heather and the department doing what I believed I was good at doing, which was being head of field operations. But if [going to the PUC was] the role the coach saw me in, that’s where I went. There had been a scathing grand jury report that the city’s water system was vulnerable to terrorist attack. I pretty much created the PUC’s homeland security section. And then, of course, Ed Lee [as city administrator] was heading up the interagency disaster recovery plan, so I got to know him very well. It was also where I learned about project management. In the private sector, you’re expected to finish jobs on time and on budget, whereas in civil service, if you give someone a project, they have 30 years to finish it, and if they don’t finish it, they leave anyway. Now as chief, when I give projects, I set deadlines.