New coach, new approach

Police Chief George Gascón, just two months on the job, is already making big changes
Photo by Charles Russo

The chief was running late. As a group of Guardian reporters filed into his modest, comfortable conference room on the fifth floor of the Hall of Justice, an aide told us that Police Chief George Gascón was still meeting with Mayor Gavin Newsom at City Hall, and that we'd all have to cool our heels for a while.

While we were waiting, Michelangelo Apodaca, a public affairs officer in the chief's office (he called himself an "image strategist") stressed the recent sea change at SFPD, labeling it "new coach, new approach." (It appears, however, that the mayor is still pushing his so-called "quality of life" agenda. "I just came from a meeting where I got beat up for not doing enough about public drinking and public disorder," the chief belatedly told us.)

But once we got into the interview, Gascón was friendly, candid, thoughtful, and accommodating, and spent nearly an hour discussing his philosophy of law enforcement, his vision for San Francisco, and his positions on some tricky and divisive problems.

We left with the impression that the new chief, although hardly in agreement with us on a number of issues, is far more open than his predecessor, willing to shake things up in the moribund department — and sometimes, interested in discussion and compromise on progressive concerns.

"My philosophy of policing is very heavy in community involvement, very transparent," Gascón told us.

Gascón said he's moving quickly on implementing many of the items that he's promised, such as creating a COMPSTAT (computerized crime and staffing statistics) system that will be accessible to the public. He plans to launch it Oct. 21.

And beyond the technology, he seems interested in shifting the top-down structure of the department. "I said that we would reorganize the department in certain levels and do certain levels of decentralization to increase resources at the neighborhood level so that we actually have people within the police department who have greater ownership of neighborhood issues," he said. "And we're going to do that in November. I stated that we would have community police advisory boards at each of the stations, and those basically will be neighborhood-level people, anywhere from 10 to 20, for each station. We'll work with our local captains on neighborhood-related issues."

He said that improving how the department does community policing will have a two-fold impact. "One is, the cops get to understand better what the community really wants. The other is that the community gets to understand better what the resources really are.

"Everybody wants a foot-beat cop," he continued. "Everybody wants a fixed-post cop. Everybody wants a cop in every bus. If we had 10,000 people, then perhaps we could fulfill all those wishes. The reality is that we don't."



But the most tangible impact of Gascón's tenure so far has been his crackdowns on drug-related activity in the Tenderloin, where more than 300 people at a time have been swept up in sting operations, and on marijuana-growing operations in the Sunset District, where 36 locations were raided (four of which Gascón said were discovered to be "legitimate" medical marijuana growers who had their crops returned by police).

The arrest surge generated a lot of positive press — but also is costing the city a bundle. Sheriff Michael Hennessey, who runs the county jail, told us that he had to reopen several jail housing units that had been slated to close to meet his budget for the current fiscal year. He said the average daily jail population in July was 1,861, but that it has risen to 2,146 in September, a 285 inmate increase.

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