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‘This Had to Be Done’: Why Greg Suhr Couldn’t Survive Yet Another Cop Shooting

What comes next is anyone's guess.

  

Late Thursday evening, Greg Suhr's voicemail still instructed callers to leave a message for "Chief Greg Suhr." But by then, he was no longer chief. And he certainly wasn't taking calls.

At around 9:45 Thursday morning, San Francisco police shot and killed a 27-year-old African American woman in the Bayview; details are still emerging, but the woman was apparently unarmed and attempting to flee from officers in an allegedly stolen car when she was gunned down by a police sergeant. A little less than an hour later, City Hall sources say, Mayor Ed Lee had already made up his mind—Suhr was out, and he'd be out by day's end.

And so, when Lee announced a Thursday afternoon City Hall meeting with the chief to be followed by a "statement," there was little suspense regarding what that statement might be. At around 4:40 p.m., Lee, Police Commission President Suzy Loftus, and Deputy Chief Toney Chaplin filed into Room 200 to a barrage of camera snaps. Their glum expressions were telling, as was the absence of Suhr himself. Just down the corridor, a gospel chorus rehearsing for that night's Dignity Health HumanKindness gala let loose a mournful dirge. It was right on cue.

Even before this latest police shooting, which at first blush appears to be a dreadful one, Suhr was hanging onto power by a rope of sand. He ascended to the pantheon of the San Francisco Police Department, and stayed there, by amassing vast amounts of political capital and spending it wisely. But Thursday's shooting bankrupted him, and forced his boss to come to a "different conclusion" about supporting his embattled appointee. The progress that the city has made on equitable policing practices, the mayor said, "has been meaningful. But it's not fast enough. For me—or Greg."

But Thursday's shooting wasn’t just the tipping point—it was also the excuse, and the cover. While Suhr publicly stated that he was committed to seeing through reforms to prevent shootings like Thursday's, multiple City Hall sources tell us that, privately, Suhr had been mulling his options in recent weeks. He did not want to be driven out of office by angry protesters and self-righteous hunger-strikers—he had too much pride for that. The 35-year veteran cop hoped to exit on his own terms, at a time of his choosing (or at least make this appear plausible). But that became impossible on Thursday; the mayor had been mulling his options, too. "This was clearly an untenable situation," says Supervisor Aaron Peskin. "And this had to be done."

And that naturally prompts the question: Will Suhr’s ouster help? The SFPD's Departmental General Orders allow officers who even perceive a threat to respond with extreme force. Altering those rules requires a frontal assault against both skeptical rank-and-file officers and the powerful and bellicose Police Officers Association. To transform a police force—compelling it to abide by less permissive bylaws, train it thoroughly in de-escalation tactics, and make it accountable when its members transgress the rules—will be far, far more difficult than deposing the chief. Chiefs are just figureheads, after all, installed and replaced at the whim of the mayor; the system is far more intransigent. Changing it requires either reciprocity or coercion, and it takes more than a hunger strike or a slogan to secure that.  

Neither Lee nor Loftus nor acting chief Chaplin would take questions on Thursday: When asked if a nationwide search for the next chief will commence, the mayor only said he'd "work with" the Police Commission on that. The naming of Chaplin to the top post was a highly telegraphed move; the promotion, in a crisis, of the African American cop overseeing the department's attempts at reform was logical and predictable. Chaplin's ascension has been fast-tracked; the 26-year veteran was promoted to lieutenant in 2012, commander in 2015, and this year was the last of Suhr's eye-popping 26 appointments to command staff.

"Toney is very friendly. He's gregarious. You're going to enjoy talking with him," summed up a veteran cop. "The POA is going to butter him up. They are really going to kiss his ass."

But, as was the eventual case with Chaplin's predecessor, the grace period ends as soon as one police officer misbehaves. After Thursday, the assertion made by Suhr and others that no replacement would be any more capable than he of pushing through reforms became a nonstarter. Suhr wouldn’t be around to test the theory—he became too overwhelmed with baggage to function for even one day longer.

The POA is claiming Suhr's tenure as chief "will be remembered as one of the most successful in the history of the San Francisco Police Department." Well, OK then. But, at the moment, this is a city mired in stasis, anger, and near-total uncertainty. "Will things improve?" asks Peskin. "Only time will tell."

 

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