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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.
You’ve worked Bayview–Hunters Point, the Mission—some pretty rough assignments. In your experience, what kind of police department does this city want?
When things are working in the neighborhoods, people say, “You know, San Francisco cops are different from other cops. San Francisco cops are cool.” In other words, we can tell the difference—hopefully—between a good kid having a bad day and a bad guy. The former deserves some discretion, a call to his parents, a ride home, a referral to the Boys & Girls Club, while the other guy needs to go to jail. In a lot of towns, it’s just go to jail. If we want a safer city over the long term, we can only do it through kids, through generational change. It’s all about paths and choices. As police, it’s our responsibility to help [at-risk kids] along, give them opportunities, make sure they’re career- or college-ready. If we show them we think they’re worth taking a chance on, just like a chance was taken on me [when I was offered this job], then we might witness that change.
William Bratton, the ex-chief of Los Angeles and New York City, made his reputation on the “broken windows” theory of policing—if you punish minor crimes, like vandalizing, you’ll deter worse crimes later. You seem to have a similar approach, only it’s kid-based instead of property-based.
Chief Bratton’s belief was that things left unattended beget worse problems down the line. What should we be concerned about more than our children? And what could be worse than if we left them unattended? If we attend to them, they become the solution to the problem.
Clearly, one thing that this city doesn’t want is a policy like New York’s “stop-and-frisk.” Your very strong, very public stand against mayor Ed Lee this summer raised a lot of eyebrows. What happened?
I think what Mayor Lee was saying was misinterpreted. He was talking to [the Chronicle’s] editorial board, and he was asked about what action he was considering to address the violence in Visitacion Valley [where gang-related shootings killed 10 people in June and 4 on a single weekend in July]. He responded, “There is nothing I wouldn’t consider—I was recently speaking with [New York] Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg about stop-and-frisk...” and [the issue] took on a life of its own.
I believe Mayor Lee wanted to get everyone engaged in the solution, so he said he’d look at anything. But because he’s a former civil rights attorney, I also knew that what he really meant was “anything...so long as it was constitutional and respectful of everyone’s rights.” And I said that stop-and-frisk wasn’t anything we’d ever do because it has been shown to strongly suggest racial profiling. Every stop made by the SFPD would continue to be based on “reasonable suspicion,” and every search, or frisk, would be based on probable cause and/or the officer’s safety [as required by a 1968 Supreme Court decision].
In August [after much consultation], we implemented what we call the mayor’s “Interrupt, Predict, and Organize” approach to violent crime. And this year, for the first time in decades, there were no homicides in San Francisco—not one—in the month of August. [Editor’s note: There were 11 murders from September 1 through November 9, for a total of 58 so far in 2012, versus 47 for the like period last year.]
I’ve heard that Ed Lee was under a lot of pressure from the Chinese-American community not to appoint you because of your conflicts with Heather Fong. As recently as two years ago, no one could have predicted that it would ever happen—Lee being mayor or you being chief. Is it something you had always hoped for?
Not at first. I became a cop because I was raised to believe in the idea of service—it’s not about you, it’s about what you can do for those who have less than you. But I always thought I’d end up a lawyer, like a lot of my family. After I made lieutenant, when I saw things I thought begged to be addressed, I realized that the chief was the ultimate visionary and decision maker for what the department could and should be.
You mentioned to me once that you had notes that you kept in an “If I’m ever chief” file. Do you still have them?
I have a folder that I started in 2000, when I first made the command staff. They’re notes on things like how to conduct yourself, how to minimize complaints, the incidence of violent crime on rainy versus non-rainy days. My premise—which has turned out to be statistically true—was that violence should be lower when the elements drive folks inside. Shooters don’t like to get wet. Which is why, whenever we get a spike in random violence, [I] pray for rain.