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Hail to the Well-Paid, Cop-Loved, Politically Respected Chief

Greg Suhr earns more than any other police chief in the nation. And the strange thing is, nobody’s complaining.

"I am the story that says if you do the right thing for the right reason every time, things will work out in the end."

You’ve had to get tough in other ways, like effecting the biggest work schedule change since 1986. How’s that gone?
The thing that cops like the least is change. When you tell cops who are working days and [four-day workweeks] and have 50 percent of their weekends off that they’re going to work nights and more weekends, you’d think there would be a mutiny. But I got the union to sign off on it, in part because I could say that those were the hours I had to work. [The POA’s] Gary Delagnes told the rank and file, “The best thing about having Greg Suhr as chief is that he knows everybody, he’s been around, he knows how it works. And the worst thing about having Greg Suhr as chief is that he knows everybody, he’s been around, and he knows how it works.” If people complained about getting a raw deal, I could say, “You got it tougher than I did? And look, I’m OK. If you just stay positive, things have a way of working out.”

One area where your experience really came in handy was during the Occupy protests. You were under a lot of political pressure.
If I had a nickel for every time I spoke with [progressive supervisors] John Avalos or Jane Kim in the wee hours of the morning, and every night with Mayor Lee—we all realized how invested we are in this city. You develop a mutual respect.

How did you avoid what happened with Occupy Oakland?
Anyone who knows me knows that I treat my officers like I’m personally responsible when they go outside. There was no way I was going to let them or the department become the focal point of a no-win situation that was going to take a long time to resolve. In conversations with the mayor, we decided it was better to approach Occupy from the angle of public health. We were cast as the safety officers. The way the department approached Occupy—with professionalism, restraint, and engagement—is one of the things I’m very proud of.

Speaking of keeping the city safe, San Francisco expects its police department to be on the cutting edge when it comes to crime-fighting tools, yet the SFPD just got email in 2011. How could that be?
Technology has been a problem for a long time. Back in 2003, a friend of mine—[the late] Mike Homer, one of the guys who started Netscape— advised moving to a web-based platform, as opposed to a client server created by a consultant, because by the time you got it installed, it would already be outdated. Yet we went another $10 million down the consultant road with very little to show for it. When I was appointed chief, I couldn’t believe we didn’t have a help desk; I couldn’t believe police officers making $100,000-plus were slaves to antiquated IT. I’ve almost completely privatized our IT section.

What kind of impact have you seen?
Here’s an example—a fantastic rape arrest we never would have made without IT. One night, a couple is out, and they meet a guy who somehow gives them a rape drug. When they wake up in the morning, the woman has been raped. All they know about the guy is a phone number. We plug the number into our new Google-search-capable system and discover that this same number was given by a victim of a crime that was committed on Muni last year. We get his name, look him up on Facebook, put his picture in a photo spread to ID, and make the arrest.

That’s great, but it’s exactly what I would have expected. What are the other big public safety issues you’re dealing with?
First, gun violence. We have an uptick in Norteño-Sureño gun violence in the Mission that we are working hard to beat back. Second, we have a problem with theft of electronic devices. It’s epidemic nationally, and because of it, we’re having a spike in robberies, auto burglaries. It begets the next crime. If we can get the public to guard these devices, we’d have a dramatic impact on crime rates.

Looking forward, how do you define success?
Getting a handle on the problems we’ve talked about, of course. If we can effect generational change [of the kind that makes the city safer], maybe they’ll be talking about [the San Francisco policing model] rather than New York. I want to develop cops at every rank so that, when it comes time to pick the next chief, nobody would think of going outside the SFPD. I want everybody in this police department to want my job. I want them to be doing groundbreaking things to prove that they are smarter and more capable than I am. If they do that, the department is better off, and the city is better off. I would leave a happy guy.

This was originally published in the December 2012 issue of San Francisco.

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