Public safety adrift

At this pivotal moment for law enforcement, will Newsom and his top deputies continue to let politics guide policy?
Illustration by Jason Crosby

Shortly into his first term as mayor, Gavin Newsom told a caller on talk radio — who was threatening to start a recall campaign if the mayor didn't solve the city's homicide problem — that Newsom might sign his own recall petition if he didn't succeed in reducing violent crime.

But Newsom didn't reduce violence — indeed, it spiked during his tenure — nor did he hold himself or anyone else accountable. Guardian interviews and research show that the city doesn't have a clear and consistent public safety strategy. Instead, politics and personal loyalty to Newsom are driving what little official debate there is about issues ranging from the high murder rate to protecting immigrants.

The dynamic has played out repeatedly in recent years, on issues that include police foot patrols, crime cameras, the Community Justice Court, policies toward cannabis clubs, gang injunctions, immigration policy, municipal identification cards, police-community relations, reform of San Francisco Police Department policies on the use of force, and the question of whether SFPD long ago needed new leadership.

Newsom's supporters insist he is committed to criminal justice. But detractors say that Newsom's political ambition, management style, and personal hang-ups are the key to understanding why, over and over again, he fires strong but politically threatening leaders and stands by mediocre but loyal managers. And it explains how and why a vacuum opened at the top of the city's criminal justice system, a black hole that was promptly exploited by San Francisco-based U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello, who successfully pressured Newsom to weaken city policies that protected undocumented immigrants accused of crimes.

Since appointing Heather Fong as chief of the San Francisco Police Department in 2004, Newsom has heard plenty of praise for this hardworking, morally upright administrator. But her lack of leadership skills contributed to declining morale in the ranks. So when he hired the conservative and controversial Kevin Ryan as director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice — the only U.S. Attorney fired for incompetence during the Bush administration's politicized 2006 purge of the Department of Justice, despite Ryan's statements of political loyalty to Bush — most folks assumed it was because Newsom had gubernatorial ambitions and wanted to look tough on crime.

Now, with Fong set to retire and a new presidential administration signaling that Russoniello's days may be numbered, some change may be in the offing. But with immigrant communities angrily urging reform, and Newsom and Ryan resisting it, there are key battles ahead before San Francisco can move toward a coherent and compassionate public safety strategy.


The combination of Ryan, Fong, and Newsom created a schizophrenic approach to public policy, particularly when it came to immigrants. Fong supported the sanctuary city policies that barred SFPD from notifying federal authorities about interactions with undocumented immigrants, but Ryan and many cops opposed them. That led to media leaks of juvenile crime records that embarrassed Newsom and allowed Russoniello and other conservatives to force key changes to this cherished ordinance.

Russoniello had opposed the city's sanctuary legislation from the moment it was introduced by then Mayor Dianne Feinstein in the 1980s, when he serving his first term as the U.S. Attorney for Northern California.