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The Force Inside the Force

San Francisco’s loud, angry police union is out of step with the city’s progressive politics. How is it still wielding power?


Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about local influencers, insiders, and rabble rousers that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the December 2016 Power Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue’s contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

“I was a
middle-class white kid. Twenty-four years old. I’d been a cop for maybe three weeks. And, out in the Mission district, I got a call for an 802. A dead person.”

Gary Delagnes, now 62, is reminiscing inside the spacious, high-ceilinged SoMa headquarters that his union, the San Francisco Police Officers Association (POA), bought more than a decade ago from a failed startup. The union, he recalls, paid far less for the building than the startup had invested not long before. (“They had to eat it,” he says matter-of-factly.)

“My training officer was Chuck Collins. He’s dead now. Great guy. Great pitcher at Sacred Heart. And he said, ‘You got your first 802, buddy.’ Fuck. A transient hotel in the Mission. There’s this bad smell coming out of room 123. This guy had committed suicide; I don’t know why nobody heard the shotgun. His head was about 10 feet away from his body.” The smell, Delagnes recalls, was overwhelming. “My partner had a cream he put in his nose. And a cigar. I remember he said to me, ‘Kid, if you’re going to work here, you always have to have a cigar.’ After that, I saw probably another 200 dead bodies in my life. I always had a cigar.”

Delagnes looks like what you’d expect a retired Irish Catholic San Francisco cop to look like: tall, with a close-cropped haircut that’s all right angles and the broad shoulders and hulking build of an ex–college jock. (He hit .409 and played first base for the University of San Francisco baseball team in 1976.) Born in 1954, Delagnes grew up at a time when boys from the Sunset were almost bred to join the police force, typically after stints at St. Ignatius high school and USF. Disciples of a socially conservative, white, Catholic San Francisco, young men of Delagnes’s era were bewildered by the gays, the hippies, and the violent, chaotic city that had emerged by the 1970s. He broke in as a policeman in 1978, when cops were still earning a shade more than teachers, nervously guarding City Hall’s steps during the White Night Riots in 1979. In 1992, he was implicated for swiping thousands of newspapers containing an article critical of then–police chief Dick Hongisto. (The caper was purportedly at the chief ’s suggestion, and Hongisto was subsequently fired for it; Delagnes was suspended without pay.) On the beat, he spent years as a Tenderloin street cop, and he claims to have been knifed twice and assaulted on “hundreds” of occasions. 

He is, in short, a product of long-standing law enforcement culture. But to an extent that often goes unrealized, that culture is also a product of Delagnes. A dominant force within the POA for decades, Delagnes started as its vice president in 1990 and served as president from 2004 until 2013. In the years since his formal retirement, he’s held a position as a nearly $100,000-a-year consultant.

Delagnes’s successor as POA president, Martin Halloran, is quieter and more measured in his comportment than Delagnes (most are). But while Halloran has been no mere figurehead—his assaults on city liberals in the pages of the POA Journal are, perhaps, even more acidic than Delagnes’s were—he is still overshadowed by charismatic ex-cops like Delagnes and retired captain Paul Chignell, whom the POA retains as a legal defense administrator. Now Halloran is a lame duck, claiming that he will not run for a second term as union president in January. It’s unlikely, however, that whoever comes next will take the POA in a radically new direction or position him- or herself as the alternative to the status quo.

That’s because if you ask most veteran cops, they’ll tell you that Delagnes’s leadership of the POA was great for them. Before his time, the police union was merely that: a union. It negotiated wages and benefits and working conditions for its dues-paying cops. But since the Delagnes era began, the union—now 2,168 members strong—has been so successful in winning higher salaries and enhancing generous retirement benefits that, in recent decades, “we nearly bankrupted the city,” notes a City Hall observer. Bolstered by its increasing influence and expanding coffers, the POA has amped up its political activity and cemented its relationship with a series of mayors it helped to elect.

But there is a limit to how far the POA’s support can take a politician—and how much of the POA’s threats and cajoling a politician can take. The union increasingly finds itself on the outs with an ever-expanding group of political leaders, and not just on the left. Beset by demands for reform and transparency from the U.S. Justice Department, the Mayor’s Office, and ex–chief of police Greg Suhr—not to mention cell-phone-armed civilians, community activists, and Black Lives Matter demonstrators—the union has not so much evolved with the times as revolted against them. It now constitutes San Francisco’s most reactionary political voice. 

One year ago this month,
the world watched shaky cell phone footage of a phalanx of SFPD officers pumping 21 shots into Mario Woods. The stabbing suspect, a 26-year-old black man from the Bayview, had been cornered by the cops, who dispatched him with a level of violence that most agreed was obscene. The national whirlwind that had blown through Ferguson, Staten Island, and Chicago had touched down in San Francisco.

As the popular captain of Bayview Station from 2009 until his promotion to chief in 2011, Suhr had cultivated the support of African American community leaders. Now they were showing up at Police Commission meetings to call him a murderer. “I talked to Greg on the phone about that,” Delagnes says bitterly. “I know that broke his heart.” Suhr, who did not respond to interview requests, is, like Delagnes, a former jock from St. Ignatius and USF. They both worked in narcotics for years; they were among the oldest boys in the old boys’ club. Suhr’s installation as chief was welcomed by the POA, which has had strained relations with his predecessor, now–district attorney George Gascón.

“For Greg Suhr to become chief was a wet dream for the POA,” says an SFPD veteran. Labor leaders, he continues, are always looking for “compliance” in department heads. Intriguingly, shortly after Suhr was promoted by Mayor Ed Lee, the POA took the rare step of opening up its contract and offering givebacks to alleviate the city’s recessionary budget woes. This was seen by many political insiders as a savvy political deal cut by the union. In the following years, SFPD insiders say, the union had no small degree of influence in determining departmental promotions. Suhr even penned a column in the POA Journal—an oddity, considering he was management and the paper is the voice of labor. 

But after the Woods shooting, the tenor of Suhr’s relationship with the union changed. His call for the adoption of less-than-lethal equipment such as 36-inch batons and riot shields led the POA to dig in its heels. Lee’s suggestion that the SFPD deploy Batman-like “net guns” induces a round of derisive laughter from Delagnes. “I don’t know what that is. I think it’s like trying to catch a tiger,” he tells me. “Can you imagine the first time on the front page of the Chronicle there’s a net around four black people? Are we back to slavery now? Come on!”

The union, which had earlier battled on Suhr’s behalf in his long-simmering feud with DA Gascón over police misconduct, was not with the chief in this fight. Delagnes acknowledges that, following the Woods shooting, he and his longtime friend Suhr “had a huge falling-out over Greg’s response to the incident. Not because trying to institute new things was wrong, but I felt very clearly Greg had sold out.” The union’s intransigence in fighting even the most perfunctory reform proposals, coupled with a growing chorus of calls for the chief’s ouster, left Suhr on an island. After an officer shot and killed an unarmed black woman driving a suspected stolen car on May 19, the chief was doomed. He was forced to resign within hours.

The POA now eulogizes the man who “sold out” as one of its greatest chiefs ever, and it has turned its attentions to replacing him with interim chief Toney Chaplin—who is, most appealingly to the POA, a lifelong department insider. (Delagnes says the POA has not been “as adamant” in pushing Chaplin as it had been with Suhr, and fears for the longevity of any future chief.) But those aren’t the only levers the union has been pulling. In the year since the Woods shooting, union honchos have fired off inflammatory statements about city resolutions honoring antipolice protests and memorializing Woods. They’ve detonated bridges with African American allies like Supervisors Malia Cohen and London Breed. They’ve combated a package of reforms advanced by the Police Commission, while ridiculing the very notion of a civilian police commission in the first place. They’ve vilified 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for his national anthem protests. And they’ve cut big campaign checks to benefit the local Republican Party and the efforts to defeat Proposition 62 (which would have repealed the death penalty). All this in a city that voted overwhelmingly against the GOP ticket and for that state law. More and more, in the eyes of the city’s liberal leaders, the POA has become an entirely toxic entity.

“Shut it down”
is now the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter protesters storming public meetings and intersections. These demonstrators are, by and large, loathed by POA leadership, who decry them as infantile and opportunistic. But a generation ago, according to those on hand, it was the POA itself bellowing “Shut it down!” inside a government building.

In 1975, POA president Jerry Crowley was hoping to address a Board of Supervisors meeting after city legislators failed to grant the cops a mandatory raise. But no supe would recognize him to speak. For the 200 or so cops packing the gallery, this was the last straw. “Somebody yelled, ‘Shut it down!,’ and everybody ran down the stairs,” recalls retired captain Al Casciato, who was there.

The ensuing three-day work stoppage alienated the general public and led to a revamping of the city charter to forbid city employees from walking off the job. But in the long run, the POA was galvanized; it was on its way to becoming one of this city’s most feared and powerful unions. That transformation was cinched in the early 1990s, when the POA finally won the ability to negotiate via collective bargaining.

In the ensuing decades, San Francisco cops’ compensations have exploded: The state’s 92nd-best-paid police in 1992 are now the richest big-city force in all of California. Delagnes pegs his own starting salary in 1978 at $19,000, which in 2016 dollars is about $70,000. Today’s cops start out at $83,000 and can hit $115,500 in six years. But that’s only the beginning: In 2002, cops convinced voters to permit them to retire at 55 with a pension representing 90 percent of their salary. And in 2008, voters also green-lit the Deferred Retirement Option Program, in which veteran cops who stuck around for up to three years after hitting retirement age could simultaneously earn a pension and a salary. Delagnes himself took advantage of this program to earn a lump-sum payment of $279,730 when he officially turned in his badge and gun in mid-2013. 

But for all the good that Delagnes has done for the finances of a younger generation of cops, those younger cops populating the department do not always see the world in the same way as their grizzled union boss. “On the whole, we don’t have it that bad,” says one thirty-something cop who’s been on the force for nearly a decade. “They pay us a lot, so it’s not like anybody’s hurting. A lot of the young cops take it for granted.” As for accepting proposed reforms, younger cops, he feels, “are more apt to go with the flow.” 

When Delagnes was coming up in the ’70s and ’80s, his mentors were, by and large, troubled Vietnam vets. “They were damaged,” he recalls. “They’d do their watch from four to midnight and then midnight to two in the bar. That was every fricking night. Many of those guys were alcoholics. They died young. There were a lot of bad marriages and bad relationships. But they were fantastic cops.”

The SFPD today, Delagnes concedes, is more worldly. Nearly 50 percent of its 2,294 officers are minorities; 15 percent are women. Whereas it was common in Delagnes’s prime years for police officers to have only a high school degree, he says that three-quarters of police recruits in the last five years graduated college. They are also in a better place emotionally—they are better spouses, Delagnes believes, better parents. “I think today they are more squared away in their lives.”

But Delagnes isn’t convinced that these healthier, more emotionally stable cops actually make better law enforcers. When he visited academy classes in recent years, “always, the first question I asked is, ‘How many people in this room have been in a fistfight?’” In his day, every hand would have been up. Now “you’re lucky to get one or two.” Cops today, he laments, aren’t familiar or comfortable with physical violence. They aren’t “bullshitters,” adept at mixing it up with people on the street. They’re “commuter cops” with no inherent love for San Francisco who would happily take a police job in a town closer to their front door if the pay was as good. “There is not that same commitment to the profession,” says Delagnes, who, years ago, moved his own family to Novato, where he could afford housing and send his kids to better public schools. “There is not an emotional tie to the city.”

This is the mixed blessing of Delagnes’s success. He has made the profession attractive to people very different from himself who are motivated by very different things. The SFPD “is going in a corporate direction,” says a longtime cop who’s known Delagnes for decades. “The people who are cops now 20 years ago would be working in a corporation. But there are fewer jobs in the corporate world, so they’re becoming cops. This is Gary’s Alamo, and the millennials are circling it.”

Though he’s lived
in Novato since the turn of the century, it’s clear Delagnes still bleeds for the city. What’s less clear is if the San Francisco he envisions still exists. In Delagnes’s younger days, crime fighting was very “black-and-white. You had these ass-kicking cops whose one goal in life was to protect innocent people from bad people,” he recalls. “In 1983, if a motorist saw me knocking the shit out of some guy, they’d probably say, ‘Ah, fuck it, he had it coming.’ Now it’s ‘Oh my God! Why is that cop hitting that guy?’” 

Life may have been black-and-white, but, Delagnes insists, it was never black or white. “People constantly bring up racial tension. It was never about that. Ever! For cops I know, it’s about assholes. Any cop’ll tell you, ‘I don’t give a shit what color a guy is. An asshole is an asshole.’” This is, unsurprisingly, not a case-closed argument. In October, the Department of Justice released a 387-page critique of the SFPD that found, among many other issues, “disparities in traffic stops, post-stop searches, and use of deadly force against African-Americans.” Far from being post-racial, the SFPD was found to demonstrate “numerous indicators of implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups.” 

In 2015 and 2016, two separate batches of SFPD officers bandied about spectacularly racist text messages. (“All niggers must fucking hang” was perhaps the worst.) Delagnes insists racism isn’t pervasive in the department. San Franciscans, he says, just aren’t racist (although old cops, he admits, were plenty homophobic). But that’s all the rationalizing he can do. After those texts went public, “I felt the need to go up to every African American cop in this department and apologize.” 

Delagnes and his union are less apologetic about statistics revealing vast racial disparities in police interactions and arrests. Getting upset over these numbers, he insists, is a sign of naïveté. Politicians and community leaders, he says, call in the cops to clean up drug dealing and street crime in minority neighborhoods, then turn around and excoriate cops for arresting minorities committing crimes in those minority neighborhoods. “Who do they think the dealers are in Bayview and the Western Addition? They’re black!” he says. “White people don’t deal drugs on the street. They’re [dealing] in a bar on Union Street. In their apartments at 23rd and Moraga.”

Delagnes fumes that it’s easier to label a cop a bigot than it is to address crime problems in minority communities. “When 13 percent of the population commits 70 percent of the violent crime in America, you can’t just say, ‘This guy’s racist,’” he argues, his voice steadily rising. “I’m telling you the FBI statistics. These are conversations people are very nervous about having: ‘You can’t say that.’ What do you mean? It’s the facts.”

(According to the FBI’s 2015 Uniform Crime Reporting, white people accounted for 60.1 percent of all violent-crime arrests in 2015. There are voices within the POA and SFPD, however, that suggest that San Francisco experiences blessedly few homicides because so few black people live here.) 

Against this background, it’s hardly surprising that the POA’s relationship with African American lawmakers like Cohen and Breed has curdled. Cohen carried legislation in 2015 requiring more detailed racial data with regard to arrests and use of force. Later that year, she would refer to the cops who shot Mario Woods as an “ethnically diverse firing squad.” That came after she received a December 2014 email from Delagnes in which he was, to put it mildly, critical of her support for a non-binding resolution cheerleading Black Lives Matter protests. “My thought is that you must have lost your mind,” reads his missive to Cohen. “If you become involved in this legislation you can rest assured that any relation with the POA is over. We went above and beyond for you and this is how you repay us. You had better think long and hard before lending your name to this. I am astounded that you would involve yourself in this absolute bullshit.” (Communiqués like these earned Delagnes a $5,500 fine for unregistered lobbying. The POA paid it in his stead.)

Similarly, long-simmering tensions with Breed boiled over in May. After she voiced support for both a Woods remembrance-day resolution and a DOJ probe of the police department, the POA rescinded its endorsement of the board president in her reelection bid this November (she won anyway; mixing it up with the POA probably helped in liberal District 5), and she summarily returned its $500 donation. “Malia threw us under the bus,” Delagnes says with a wave of his hand. “Malia’s the worst. But London? She hurt me to the core. It’s hard to hurt me to the core. I thought she was the greatest person. But to see somebody like that turn on us, vilify us, all in the hands of black expediency and political survival…” Delagnes trails off. For a fleeting moment, he appears to lose his composure, and tears form in his eyes. But only for a moment.

Relayed this story, Breed is unmoved. She smiles and rolls her eyes to a near-audible degree. “What do you want me to say to that?” Breed says she’s fine with the union nixing its endorsement of her over her position on the Woods resolution. But that resolution was passed in a unanimous vote. Why then, I ask, didn’t the POA rescind its endorsements of other lawmakers seeking election, such as state senate candidate Scott Wiener? “Exactly,” says Breed, not smiling anymore. “Exactly.” 

The POA’s critics have
righteous indignation and a sense of moral certainty that their feelings are shared by a majority of city dwellers. But the POA has polling. And it says otherwise. In fact, according to a 550-person citywide poll commissioned by the POA and performed in March by the respected firm of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, roughly 82 percent of city residents were pleased with San Francisco cops—far exceeding their approval of the mayor or the supervisors. Fifty-one percent of city residents believed that cops use appropriate force when making arrests. Seventy-seven percent thought that cops care about “people like me.” Seventy-three percent said they trust the SFPD. When asked, specifically, about the Woods shooting, 33 percent of respondents thought the killing was “unfair and wrong” and 22 percent felt that the cops “misused their power.” But just 2 percent saw it as racially motivated.

So for all the hand-wringing over the POA’s bellicosity, for all the enmity it’s sown with elected legislators, the police and their union still don’t appear to be nearly as unpopular with the general public as they are among their fervent critics. It helps that the POA “has bet right in every mayor’s race,” notes a longtime city political observer. But it also helps that a generational civil war within the union doesn’t appear to be taking place.

By and large, the several young police officers I’ve been speaking to for this story appreciate their union’s pugnacity. “I’m glad they’re emotional and don’t act like robots,” says a 32-year-old cop. “A lot of the working beat cops appreciate Gary,” adds a 31-year-old officer, “because he is blunt. Because he will be honest and say things we are afraid to bring up.” Still, every millennial cop I talk to says there’s a “shelf life” on how much longer older white men can control the police union.

Gary Delagnes says he’s out next year: no more power behind the throne, no more politics. Though whether he remains on the bench could be determined by how much the POA needs the old ballplayer back in the game. In 2018, the union will return to the bargaining table. Despite its antipathy to reforms of the sort that the Police Commission, the mayor, and the Department of Justice have called for, the union’s deep pockets, long-standing relationships, and strong internal polling numbers offer no small degree of leverage to the POA’s leadership. “At many levels,” Delagnes says, “San Francisco is a city that doesn’t know what it wants to be anymore.” 

But the same cannot be said of the city’s police union. For Delagnes and the POA, life remains black-and-white.


Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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