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The Chief Stays in the Game

However improbably, Greg Suhr remains atop the SFPD. But is it politics or policing that will keep him there?


Back in the 1980s, while he was working as a plainclothes officer in the Western Addition, Greg Suhr picked up a nickname among the neighborhood’s rougher elements: Baldie. It was a logical handle, and more endearing than the one bestowed upon Suhr’s partner at the time: Dick Nose. How well that physical attribute served Suhr’s sidekick is anyone’s guess. But as for Suhr, who would go on to become the chief of the San Francisco Police Department, that bald head has lent him an air of gravitas, unpretentiousness, and Bruce Willis–esque cool. Baldie was a “working cop,” it is said by those who knew him way back when—a guy who earned his rep in the streets. But the city native was also a natural politician, gifted at forming alliances and adept at using his connections to ascend the department ladder.

These political talents were on full display in late February, when Suhr stood alongside the mayor, members of the Police Commission, and a rainbow coalition of community members at a City Hall press conference at which a number of dramatic department reforms were announced. The fact that Suhr was standing there at all was, to some department observers, a marvel. Here was an SFPD lifer who, in his nearly five years as chief, had gone from can’t-do-wrong to can’t-be-trusted, with protesters now calling for his badge, a district attorney sniping at him in the media, and a police officers’ union increasingly losing its collective mind. This was the guy who’d be entrusted with rebooting department culture. This was the man who’d be marshaling drastic changes into an institution famously averse to them, and where he’d been part of the machinery since 1981. 

And yet the embattled chief was not only still standing; he was sporting a brand-new persona: reformer. “Trust was shattered with the officer-involved shooting of Mario Woods,” he told the assembled crowd, referring to the December 2 Bayview encounter that had left the 26-year-old stabbing suspect, armed with a kitchen knife, dead with 21 SFPD-inflicted gunshot wounds. “We need to figure out a way to reengineer force.”

Just like that, Suhr recast himself again: transforming from the departmental apologist who initially asserted that Woods had brought about his own death by raising his hand at an officer (a claim that didn’t withstand video scrutiny) into the man—perhaps the only man—who could ram through much-needed reforms in the face of bellicose opposition from within the department. In an interview conducted several days before the announcement, Suhr told San Francisco that, far from being resistant to change, he was eager to implement these reforms. In so doing, he reinforced the impression that he is not just an amiable guy with a notable cranium, but a consummate political survivor.

How good is
Suhr at playing the game? One measure of his political acumen has been his ability to weather a cavalcade of scandals that would have unseated a less connected and less adroit leader. Take the bombs that dropped in 2015 alone: In July, it was revealed that the SFPD had never mounted a follow-up investigation into the theft of the federal agent’s gun that was later used to kill Kate Steinle on Pier 14. In August, the city paid $725,000 to settle a lawsuit filed against Suhr for retaliating against a department lawyer who had reported that the chief had “a history of violating police department policies and the law,” including “lying to the FBI to get a top secret security clearance.” (The settlement came on top of $755,000 in legal fees and other expenses that the city had shelled out fighting the case for two years, before capitulating on the eve of what promised to be a revelatory trial.) In December, a judge ruled that the SFPD had bungled its case against officers caught exchanging racist text messages, having apparently sat on the matter until the statute of limitations lapsed. That news came shortly after the horrendous Woods affair—which was but the latest in a line of controversial police killings of minority suspects (Alex Nieto and Amilcar Perez-Lopez, to name just two others), none of whom were carrying a firearm at the time of their death.

But these aren’t the only marks on Suhr’s record. Perhaps most omnipresent for San Franciscans, during Suhr’s five years as chief, crime—other than homicides—has gone up. Property crimes, in particular, exploded by 38 percent between 2010 and 2014, and arrests are down: Only 1 in 10 reported serious crimes now ends with an arrest; the SFPD is averaging fewer than one arrest per hour. So for those looking to confront Suhr publicly, and to bellow recriminations to his face, there is plenty of material to choose from. But again and again, Suhr has outlasted his accusers. Part of this is his estimable backbone; unlike some top cops, who will go to great lengths to avoid public confrontations, Suhr has repeatedly taken his lumps in hostile rooms, where community activists take over meetings with chants of “Fire Chief Suhr!” After stoically withstanding peals of abuse, he will take the mic, offer empathy to the aggrieved, and propose tenable steps to better the department. Many people appreciate that. And the optics of the serene chief and abrasive community members transcend the room.

“Greg has a great memory,” says a cop who’s been at those restive community meetings. “He remembers relationships. He remembers what officers worked in what sectors and what community leaders they were involved with.” Suhr knows which friendly, familiar cops should be deployed to a particular event held in a particular community and led by particular irate community heads. That gives Suhr a leg up before he’s even shown up. And, once he has, he employs his rope-a-dope magic—a willingness to suck it up. Through force of personality and gestures of compassion, he makes people forget that the conditions he’s pledging to improve, in many cases, have grown worse under his watch.

In February,
a few days before publicly announcing the raft of reforms, Suhr considered a question about the rank and file: Would these new rules—helmets and three-foot batons in every patrol car; efforts to slow down confrontations with knife-wielding suspects; a supervisor being dispatched to every call involving a weapon—sit well with the working cops? Suhr chuckled ruefully. “It’s funny,” he admitted, “because I’m about to schedule myself for visits to all the stations to take this conversation right to the officers.” 

Those conversations were unlikely to be pleasant ones, at least if the city’s Police Officers Association had any involvement in them. The union, playing its designated role of bad cop in this drama, has sworn to derail any proposals that it feels put the workforce in harm’s way: “I’m not going to allow my members to be placed in jeopardy for the sake of appeasing a small group of activists in the city,” POA president Martin Halloran tells us. Asked to elaborate, he demurs: “I can’t discuss it. I don’t want to inflame this.” 

Well, too late. The POA’s vitriol has rendered it a toxic entity—but never an irrelevant one. Suhr and the union have a long relationship; the chief incongruously has a column in the POA newsletter, and, in a potential contravention of departmental policy, Suhr has endorsed the private security firm of former longtime union boss Gary Delagnes, a fellow St. Ignatius Prep alum and erstwhile narc. (“I have known Gary Delagnes for 30 years,” Suhr shilled. “I would hire Barbary Coast Security without hesitation for any security need.”) But being thick as thieves with the union won’t necessarily help Suhr convince his workforce to swallow its medicine. So, enter a badder cop: the feds.

At the city’s behest, the Department of Justice launched a review of the SFPD in February. Unlike with the probes in cities like Ferguson, Missouri, or Chicago, the federal recommendations coming out of this ongoing analysis will be merely that: recommendations. But Suhr avoided charges of whitewashing reform efforts by preemptively introducing measures he anticipated the DOJ would call for. He also pledged to San Francisco that he would treat “whatever recommendations” emerged from the federal probe “as binding.”

That’s a bold statement, as unpalatable to the union as it is reassuring to the critics monitoring Suhr’s every move, (It warrants mentioning that there’s no guarantee Suhr will still be atop the department when the DOJ issues its recommendations, which may take years.) It has an added benefit for Suhr, though: By outflanking both his local naysayers and the DOJ, Suhr now has the chance to proactively reframe the narrative in San Francisco—and, it would seem, to tighten his grasp on the wheel.

At times, even Suhr’s
departmental supporters have shaken their heads at his survival skills. “He’s like a cat,” says one. “He’s got nine lives.” But unlike a cat, says a veteran elected official, “Greg is a nice guy. Affable.” The chief is self-effacing, earnest, and humble in public. He returns reporters’ phone calls and liberally disseminates his cell number to community members. His humbleness and affability seem to have charmed Mayor Ed Lee, who is also an affable sort. “Willie Brown might have marched Greg out on a rail,” continues the same official. But a politician with Lee’s mild temperament is less likely than the brash Brown to dismiss an appointee—especially when that appointee is a longtime POA favorite. Prior to the Woods shooting, there was no real public opprobrium directed the chief ’s way. And now that there is, Suhr has labored to neutralize it.

The heat that Suhr did take before the Woods shooting largely consisted of complaints from affluent San Franciscans about pervasive quality-of-life crimes. Suhr and other SFPD higher-ups continue to shift blame for the ongoing crime spike toward statewide prison-realignment policies and Proposition 47, which recategorized certain nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. Yet these excuses don’t add up: Fewer than two dozen prisoners were released in San Francisco due to Prop. 47 in the nine months after its passage, and other California cities are not experiencing upticks of crime on this level. And while Prop. 47 passed in November 2014, San Francisco’s crime rates began spiking in 2011—right when Suhr took over.

It’s a situation that has grown worse under his watch, and that he can fob off on convenient scapegoats for only so long. Much the same might be said about the troubled culture of the SFPD. And in many ways, Suhr, the scion of an old San Francisco family and a cop for 35 years, is a curious candidate to initiate departmental upheaval. In February, Suhr testified before a panel convened by DA George Gascón that he was working to ensure that the department was no “old boys’ club.” But, say departmental observers, that’s pretty rich for a chief who, over the past five years, has featured 26 people on his command staff—a pension-draining total dwarfing his predecessors’ promotions— and rewarded old roommates and St. Ignatius chums. It’s Suhr, say his internal critics, who has helped to maintain the very clubbiness for which the SFPD has long been criticized—“an East Coast department on the West Coast,” as an old-timer puts it.

And yet, divorced from all of this, many practices that Suhr has embraced—training to dissuade officers from going to their guns, or from crowding a suspect and escalating an encounter—are good and reasonable. “If you read the policies we’ve drafted and delivered to the Police Commission,” Suhr says, “I’d suggest those are as progressive and restrictive on force as any in the country.”

Getting those policies on the books, however, is just the first step. Lieutenant James LaRochelle, a veteran cop in Las Vegas—which, like San Francisco, was probed by the DOJ—says that federally blessed use-of-force policies were undermined there by the very trainers entrusted with teaching them. “They’d voice something that would detract from it, like, ‘I know our policy got longer and harder to comprehend—forget about the policy. It’s better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6,’” LaRochelle recalls. David Rudovsky, a Philadelphia civil rights attorney who has kept abreast of that city’s DOJ probe, says that codifying better use-of-force policies is “10 percent of the battle.”

In San Francisco, the remaining 90 percent will be entrusted to a leader who has proved to be a better figurehead than he is a crime stopper or abuse preventer. The chief may be moving in the right direction in pushing to adopt these policies, but implementing them on the street will be another story entirely. Far from paying for his track record with his job, Suhr has instead positioned himself as the quarterback of this effort—a potential hero and departmental savior. And if he succeeds, he’ll be both.

Originally published in the April issue of
San Francisco

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