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Hail to the Well-Paid, Cop-Loved, Politically Respected Chief
Bennett Cohen | Photo: Ramin Rahimian | November 27, 2012
Greg Suhr earns more than any other police chief in the nation. And the strange thing is, nobody’s complaining.
IN THE MOVIE VERSION OF SFPD CHIEF Greg Suhr’s improbable career, the lead would go to Bruce Willis—a square-jawed, middle-aged white guy who makes up in swagger for what he lacks in hair. The city’s top cop looks like a throwback to the San Francisco that the ’60s forgot, but he sounds like a “closet social worker,” as his good friend, ex-supervisor Bevan Dufty, puts it—a combination that has made him that rarest of things in this ultra-left city: a police chief whom almost everyone seems to be rooting for.
More than that, Suhr may be the most powerful chief in at least a generation. “It’s like only Nixon can go to China,” says Peter Keane, UC Hastings law professor, former chief assistant public defender and police commissioner, and frequent critic of the department. “He doesn’t have to watch his back with the old-boy network. So he can reach out and do the kinds of things that someone else couldn’t do.” In the nearly two years since Suhr’s appointment, these changes have involved forcing cops to work more days—and nights. “A lot of them are really pissed off,” acknowledges Gary Delagnes, head of the Police Officers Association (POA) union, who worked the narcotics detail with Suhr during the dangerous crack cocaine years. Even so, Delagnes adds, morale is strong. “Greg’s worked his way up through the system, he’s been through shit himself, he understands what makes cops tick, and he understands San Francisco. And when you’re chief, those are the most important things.”
In a very real way, Suhr’s influence derives from the power of his personal narrative. There’s the impeccable Catholic-cop pedigree: His great-grandfather founded Tadich Grill in the 1880s; his grandfather served on the Board of Supervisors a century ago; and he attended St. Ignatius and USF and played football at City College. (He still lives a two-minute walk from the Sunset neighborhood where he grew up.) There’s the accident of his early years in the department: He joined in 1981, during a particularly divisive era, but spent most of his career in units where everyone had to get along, and the lessons he took away still resonate.
Finally, there’s the way his career was nearly derailed time and again during the past decade—first by Fajitagate, when he and most of the command staff were indicted and then exonerated in a department-wide scandal that started with a fight over takeout food; and later by then–police chief Heather Fong, who banished and demoted him for supposed mistakes in judgment (unfairly, his fellow officers fumed). Anyone else would have quit in disgust and tripled his salary as a consultant. But Suhr toughed it out. “The setbacks seasoned him,” Dufty says. “He never lost faith in being a police officer. Every day he walks in with the same idealism and enthusiasm he brought back in the 1980s. And that sets a very important tone.”
Let’s start with the biggest controversy of your tenure so far: your salary. Last year you took home $321,577, which makes you the highest-paid police chief in the country according to the Chronicle. In New York, which has a population more than 10 times bigger, police commissioner Ray Kelly earned $205,180, or almost 40 percent less.
They write that same salary story every couple of years. When I joined the department, the pay was $23,000, and our pension was 70 percent of that, or $16,000 a year. Nobody wanted to be a police officer then. We got 11 bucks an hour, which was 93rd in the state. That’s not much if you’ve been working the midnight shift in the Tenderloin for five years or you’re lying in the hospital because your radial artery has been slashed. The Police Officers Association turned the salary situation around, and now we are number three in the country in compensation. But in this tough economy, we have a lot of class warfare, and that’s too bad. I know I try to earn my salary every day.