Mayor Ed Lee appointed a deeply emotional Captain Greg Suhr as Chief of the San Francisco Police Department during a swearing-in ceremony where the majority of folks were either elected officials, running for election, running each other’s electoral campaigns—or wearing SFPD uniforms.
And in the end it seemed that the choice may have been influenced by pressure from the powerful San Francisco Police Officers Association, judging from the comment Lee jokingly directed at SFPOA leader Gary Delagnes, saying, “Gary, it’s time to get quiet and go to work.”
Lee told a standing-room only crowd that when he returned from Hong Kong to San Francisco four months ago finding a new police chief was his top priority. And that initially it was suggested (Lee did not say by whom) that he leave the SFPD situation alone and allow an elected mayor to appoint the next Chief.
‘While I am an interim mayor, this is not an interim decision,” Lee told the crowd, signaling that while he may be out of office in January, Suhr may be here to stay as the city’s top cop.
“Today, I’ve chosen the best candidate,” Lee continued, thanking Acting Chief Jeff Godown for his work leading the SFPD since former Mayor Gavin Newsom made the shocking decision to appoint former Chief George Gascón as District Attorney.
But while Newsom’s move may have upset the apple cart in the D.A.’s race, it sure seems to be working out well for Suhr.
Describing Suhr as “a police and people’s Chief: and “a reformer from the inside out,” Lee ran through a long list of the new Chief’s contributions to the SFPD. These included Suhr’s 30 years of service, his climb through the ranks to become Captain of the Mission station, his gig as Captain of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in a Homeland Security capacity, and, since 2009, as Captain of the Bayview station.
Suhr began by saying he was “speechless." Donning glasses to read a speech that he had prepared the night before, Suhr choked up when he talked of being “fourth-generation, born and raised in San Francisco." Recovering his composure, Suhr smoothly changed gears, as he joked how his appointment therefore makes him “a local hire,”—an insider reference to Sup. John Avalos’ recently approved local hire legislation that Mayor Lee is helping enact citywide.
Suhr recalled how he started out as a rookie on the midnight shift in the Tenderloin in 1981. He thanked his family, his friends and his girlfriend Wendy. And then he asked for a moment of silence “ to honor the memory of all the brave officers who have given their lives in the line of duty.”
Lee reclaimed the podium long enough to jokingly ask Suhr “to investigate the whereabouts of my birth certificate” as his first assignment as the new chief.
Then it was Board President David Chiu’s turn. Chiu described Suhr as someone, ”who knows our streets, walked the walk, and knows the beats, someone who we all feel confident will be able to bring the SFPD the reform that former Chief Godown, Chief Gascón and Chief Heather Fong initiated. “
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Katherine Feinstein, who is the daughter of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the presiding judge of the Superior Court, recalled how she has known Suhr since the mid 1980s. “I have watched him as each of our careers have moved forward,” Feinstein said, noting how there were some “steps forward and some steps backward" and how, "there were those who thought this day would never come." (Feinstein's words were the only reference to some of the less sunny moments in Suhr’s long and distinguished career. These included his 2003 indictment as part of Fajitagate, an incident that involved off-duty officers, a bag of take-out food, a beer bottle and injuries sustained by two local residents. Suhr was cleared of wrongdoing the next year, but was reassigned by then Chief Heather Fong to the PUC position after an incident in 2005, in which a police officer was seriously injured at an anarchist protest, and videographer Josh Wolf was held in federal prison for 226 days after he refused to release unedited footage of the protest.)
Next up was D.A Gascón and his rooster-like shock of silver hair. Gascón noted that when he first came to San Francisco, in the summer of 2009, he had no allegiances to, and no prior knowledge of, people inside the SFPD.
“I looked at Greg Suhr and one of the things that impressed me is how he worked with and related to people,” Gascón said, explaining why he appointed Suhr as Bayview Captain “Not only has he exceeded all expectations he did an incredible job,” he said.
Police Commission President Thomas Mazzucco said that in the 100 days since the Commission announced it was looking for a new chief, it became clear that Suhr has the support of SFPD’s rank-and-file.
Mazzuco noted that he met Suhr in high school. “I knew he could hold a ball,” Mazzuco added, noting that he subsequently became Suhr’s football coach, even though he is younger than Suhr. “What the Police Commission has brought to us is not only a native son but also a cop’s cop. It's an honor to have him as his chief.”
And after the swearing-in, the sentiment among officers in blue appeared to be strongly in Suhr’s favor. Lt. Ken Lee of Central Station recalled how he and Suhr went through the police academy together about 30 years ago.
“We went to different assignments but we've maintained a friendship,” Lee said. “The moment I met him I liked him. He was a very stand-up person, and as a native San Franciscan like myself, you could tell he had strong ties to the city. He's a hard worker, he's very dedicated to what he does."
Lt. Mario Delgadillo, also of Central Station, said Suhr hasn't lost his connection to the street. “That also means a lot, when you have a boss who's walking with you,” Delgadillo said.
Suhr takes over the SFPD as it's grappling with the fallout from a recent spate of scandals, including videos that Public Defender Jeff Adachi released that appear to show police misconduct at residential hotels and that forced DA Gascón to hand over his investigation of this alleged police misconduct to the FBI. Asked during a media roundtable what his appointment means for Acting Chief Godown, Suhr said Godown has returned to being Assistant Chief of Operations, which was the post he held before Gascón, who recruited Godown from LAPD, was appointed DA.
In response to a question about his top priorities as police chief, Suhr noted, "When I sit down with the mayor this afternoon, the mayor's going to tell me what his priorities are. My first priority will be blocking the door open on the 5th floor so that if you wanna come see me you can, like it used to be. Then I have to meet with the command staff and captains and get their take on where they think we are, where they think we're moving forward best, and match that up against how I've seen from a position of Bayview, how that matches up. And then see if I can't meet with different community groups, the different police employee groups and the command staff."
He didn't mince words when it came to indicating that SFPD officers are going to be asked to give back during upcoming budget negotiations
"I'm sure that there's going to have to be adjustments and I look forward to working with a collaborative effort with the mayor and the board and the unions and the rank and file,” Suhr said. “When the economy's been good we've benefited by it, and now that the economy has ... gone the other way, to some extent I think that the officers are willing to give back to do whatever needs to be done to keep the city safe.”
So, how does Suhr think he differs from former Chief Gascón?
”He has a gorgeous head of hair,” Suhr joked. “To put it in a sports analogy, he's a quarterback shortstop guy, and I'm more of a catcher, lineman, linebacker kind of guy. But I admire him, I think he moved a lot of issues forward for the police department, and I look forward to continuing those initiatives and giving a few of them a shot in the arm that I think were beginning to wane a bit.”
Suhr also talked about how he has always wanted to become a police officer (a comment that suggests he’s not planning to use the Chief’s post as a stepping stone to the District Attorney’s Office).
”When I went into the police department. on Silver Avenue which is now Willie Brown Academy -- that was the police academy back in 1991 when I came in -- man, we looked at just the regular uniformed police officers with just stars in our eyes, because they were just the sharpest, classiest folks that we were aspiring to be,” Suhr said.
And he indicated that as Chief, he won't tolerate dishonesty in the face of ongoing investigations into alleged police misconduct. ”The character of a police officer must be above reproach,” Suhr said. “And I think that the investigation will show what it ends up showing, but I don't think that there's a police officer in San Francisco that would want to have a dishonest cop and I'd be at the top of that list. So I want all my officers to be of character that is above reproach.
Asked if he welcome clarification around the duties of SFPD officers assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Taskforce, Suhr said he believed an examination of the wording of the FBI’s most recent memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the department was already under way.
"I believe that the MOU is being revisited,” Suhr said. “I have not been a part of that, but again I think we have a real good policy with regard to our intelligence gathering and that does supercede any ask of any other agency. The officers are bound by policies and procedures. And that policy was well thought out with tremendous community and group input years and years ago, from situations that have not since repeated themselves. I think a lot of people back then couldn't believe they happened in the first place, but I think measures were well thought out and put in place to make sure we don't have a problem again."
And at the end of the day, Suhr expressed the hope that his tenure as Chief would endure long after the interim mayor is replaced by an elected mayor.
”I'm a native San Franciscan, and this is a dream come true,” he said. “It's my first day. However this story ends, with a little bit of luck (raps on the wood tabletop) it's not going to end today."