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As San Francisco officials search for a police chief, voices compete to be heard

Holly McDede


Finding a new police chief can be complicated. Just ask San Francisco.

Activists, politicians, and police union members all have opinions about who should replace former chief Greg Suhr, who resigned under pressure after activists protested several officer involved shootings.

Officials want a replacement who can help restore public trust. But the same people who helped force Chief Suhr’s resignation are wondering if their voices will still matter, or the if the police union will have the last word.


What the People Want

Inside St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco’s Western Addition, about fifty people are gathered to tell the city’s Police Commissioners what qualities they want in their next police chief. Police Commission President Suzy Loftus stands in front of a group arranged in a circle around her. People raise their hands, and like a teacher, she calls on them for answers.


A young girl raises her hand, and says she wants to see a chief who doesn’t judge people by their appearance.


“Yes!” Loftus shouts.


This is just one of five meetings held around the city to help the Police Commission sort through the 61 candidates that applied for the job. The Commission will forward the names of up to three finalists to Mayor Ed Lee, who has the final say.


As people shout out characteristics they think are important, the room turns into a cacophony of ideas and voices. Someone wants an African American woman to be the next chief, another wants someone with a law degree. Someone wants a chief with military experience, someone wants the chief to have diverse experience to respond to the needs of the diverse community.

Skepticism and a Lack of Trust

Others don’t just want a new police chief. They want a whole new police department or, at the very least, a new police chief search process.


“There are many of us, and there are many news articles, that have spoken to the fact that this is basically a sham,” says David Carlos Salaverry, a member of San Franciscans for Police Accountability.


The facilitator asks him to focus on what qualities he does want to see in a chief, not what he doesn’t want. Another activist, Jackie Barshak, shouts at the facilitator to let him speak, crying out “Don’t censor him!”


Commissioner Thomas Mazzucco calls for order. “Excuse me, excuse me, everyone just calm down...I want to stop you for a second...How would you feel if a police officer spoke to you the way you just spoke to her?,” he asks.


Salaverry responds that he thinks the search is rigged in favor of Acting Chief Toney Chaplin, a veteran in the department who has the endorsement of the city’s police union, the San Francisco Police Officers Association.


“I would be very surprised if I did what people told me to do,” Commissioner Thomas Mazzucco answers back.


A History of Insiders

Tim Redmond, editor and founder of the online publication 48 Hills, has been watching San Francisco’s police chiefs rise and fall for decades. He says the public can shout all they want, but the police union is the voice that really matters. The union says they want an insider, a cop’s cop who has risen through the ranks. And, almost every time that’s exactly what they get.  


“With only two exceptions in the last half century, police chiefs in San Francisco have been chosen from within the department,” Redmond says. “They’ve been promoted from within the department. One could certainly argue, and I have argued, that that is one of the reasons that we have this climate of trouble in the police department.”


If the mayor were to ignore the group that represents over 2,000 police officers, he could face financial and political consequences. And four out of seven of the police commissioners are appointed by the mayor, so what he wants matters.


“I mean, commissioners who defy the mayor will end up losing their jobs on commissions, that's just how it is,” Redmond says.

Black Lives Matter Changes the Game

But Black Lives Matter didn’t exist back in 2011, when the Commission brought in former Chief Greg Suhr, an insider so inside the union called him their “native son.” Without police accountability groups like the Frisco 5 hunger strikers demanding his resignation, Suhr might still be in charge.

“It was the thousands and thousands of people in the streets following the mayor everywhere, demanding he fire the Chief,” Redmond said. “It was the lack of community faith in this department after the shootings of one after the other after the other of unarmed young people of color getting shot by the SFPD.”


Stepping Away from the Political Will

San Francisco Police Commissioner Joseph Marshall says regardless of who the next chief is, it’s policy, not personnel, that needs to be transformed.

“If the policies that govern the department don’t change, then it doesn’t matter. So for me, that’s always been the most important thing,” Marshall says.


Marshall says he wants what the community wants: a chief who can help reform the department. But some activists, like members of San Franciscans for Police Accountability, have demanded to see the names of the final three candidates, to peak inside the brains of the commissioners and see if the process has been rigged.


“Nobody’s rigged anything,” Marshall says. “It’s not rigged.”


Marshall says he wants to make his decision in a quiet room, away from all the voices -- like the union and the political powerhouses.

“I don’t want it to turn into a popularity process, I don’t want it to be a political thing, no one’s going to call me and lobby for anybody, because I’m not into that,” Marshall says. “That’s not above board, I don’t want no special interest, and personally I don’t think that would be good for the mayor either.”

But when he helps pick the final three candidates the commission will forward to the mayor, he wants to be away from the voices of the community, too.

“Look, we've had commission meetings that have been shut down because people say they want to be involved in this, they want to be involved, what's the real community, the fake community, we represent this, they represent that...no, no, no, no,” he says. “Everybody has an opinion about everything, put it in the hands of the commission. For me. I don't want that filtering into that room.”

Political Heavyweights Enter the Ring

But some voices are harder to filter out than others. Chinatown political powerhouse Rose Pak has thrown her weight behind San Francisco Deputy Chief Garret Tom. Officers for Justice, an organization representing African American and other non-white officers, sent a list of suggestions to the Police Commission. It included insiders like Toney Chaplin and big name reformers from the outside, like former Philadelphia Chief Charles Ramsey. And police union president Martin Halloran is featured in a new radio ad, in which he calls Chief Toney Chaplin “the right leader at the right time.”

Two Promises

Back at the meeting room, community members are trying to get their voices into the mix. Commissioner Thomas Mazzucco swears he’s listening.


“You will play a role in our decision. I give you my promise, my word,” he says.


And in return, community activists promise the commissioners that they aren’t going anywhere, either. With that, the meeting is over. The application period has closed. In the next few months, the commissioners will forward three names to the mayor. There’s no firm timeline, but a new chief could be in place by January 2017.

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