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‘We Need Someone with a Vision for Managing a Department Through Change’

Police Commission president Suzy Loftus ruminates on a potential sea change within the San Francisco Police Department. 

 

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.  

Name: Suzy Loftus
Occupations: General counsel at the state attorney general’s office, president of the San Francisco Police Commission
Age: 41
Residence: Outer Sunset

In a marathon session on June 22, the San Francisco Police Commission recommended some dramatic use-of-force reforms for the SFPD. What, exactly, did you do?
It’s 17 pages [of revisions]! But the emphasis is on de-escalation and not shooting at cars. Ultimately, this process started after the [December 2] shooting of Mario Woods. What people saw in that video rocked their trust in the San Francisco Police Department. It brought up questions about how we’re training officers and what we expect of them, and coincided with a national conversation. One of the big discussions was “Should the language say, ‘You should’ de-escalate or ‘You shall’?” Shall is a direct order in police parlance. We have to be clear with the officers what the expectations are.

There seems to be an increased focus on officers slowing things down during confrontations.
Most officer-involved shootings come within two minutes of an officer responding to the scene. Our whole effort is, what do we do when someone doesn’t have a gun? It’s based on how we train an officer; we can create a perimeter of safety and train an officer not to move in as fast. We’ve added a lot of data-collection requirements. There is an increased interest in “Are we actually making it better? Are we seeing a reduction in use of force?” 

How much of what we’ve just green-lit was policy at other departments ages ago?
The fact that our Departmental General Orders haven’t been revised since 1995 shows we had some work to do. The New York police department banned shooting at cars, without exceptions, more than 40 years ago. They didn’t have increased injuries of either police officers or civilians. Chief Greg Suhr believed strongly in this, and, I believe, [acting] Chief Toney Chaplin was in agreement: Don’t shoot at a moving vehicle. 

The May 19 SFPD shooting of Jessica Williams—in a moving vehicle—led to Suhr’s ouster. Now he’s gone, and you advanced comprehensive reforms. Is this a coincidence? Could you have done this if he were still chief?
We wouldn’t have gotten there if [Suhr] hadn’t been chief as long as he was. I think I’ve said all along that he’s been nothing but a champion of the direction we’re attempting to take the department, especially around use of force and—especially—around not shooting at cars. I think the city lost a lot on the day the chief resigned.

SF: You are, as we speak, conducting a national search for Suhr’s successor. What qualities are you seeking?
We need someone with a vision for managing a department through change. Someone who not only tolerates diversity but believes diversity makes us better. And is willing to constantly make sure that we’re doing the best job we can to prepare officers and hold them accountable when they fall beneath our standards. 

And how will this person be different from Greg Suhr?
Well, they won’t have had the job five years! Look, Chief Suhr worked 100 hours a week. What he didn’t do was a lot of self-promotion; he didn’t bring along the press when he spoke to kids or had meetings. There’s that Chris Rock bit about not bragging about stuff you’re supposed to do. That was stuff he was supposed to do. He held himself to a high standard, and we need that from the next chief.

SF: Bottom line, will reforms you’re working on be seen as substantive by the department’s ardent critics?
There’s no point talking with only people who agree with you. I went out to meet the [Frisco Five] hunger strikers on a Sunday after my kid’s soccer game. I said, we’re making massive changes. They said, “We believe Chief Suhr is an impediment.” I said, I agree to disagree, but they should still participate in this effort. And at our last meeting, one of them, Edwin Lindo, was there giving public comment. Having him there is part of this. If we make changes and people feel like nothing changed, then it’s all for naught.

 

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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