San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr's fate rests on a question that has been asked in other American cities torn by shooting deaths involving police officers: Is he the right man to guide his department through necessary reforms, or has his leadership become such a distraction that he should resign or be dismissed?
In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired the police superintendent after a video showing an officer shooting a black teenager 16 times was released, causing widespread demonstrations. "He has become an issue, rather than dealing with the issue, and a distraction," Emanuel said just one week after expressing his unwavering support for his police chief.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired her police chief 21/2 months after riots broke out following the death of an African American man in police custody. She, too, said the chief had become a distraction. "It is clear that the focus has been too much on the leadership of the department," she said.
And Ferguson, Mo., Police Chief Thomas Jackson resigned seven months after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed African American teenager, saying, "This city needs to move forward without any distractions."
The question in San Francisco is: Will Mayor Ed Lee continue to stand by his chief, or will he too decide that keeping Suhr is no longer politically wise now that calls for his resignation have come from four San Francisco supervisors as well as a vocal group of protesters.
"Once public confidence begins to erode and that fuse is lit, it takes a lot to put that fuse out. And that's what we have seen time and again across the country, especially when there is a racist sentiment associated with the issue," said Corey Ealons, a crisis communications expert who worked in the White House under President Obama and is now with VOX Global, a Washington, D.C., communications firm.
National police focus
The episodes that led to demands Suhr be replaced have played out over the past two years. And, but for the national debate over police brutality, they may have faded away.
The fatal police shootings of Alex Nieto on Bernal Hill in March 2014 and Guatemalan immigrant Amilcar Perez-Lopez in the Mission in February 2015 brought outrage, but it was largely limited to the neighborhoods where the shootings occurred.
Officers fired at least 59 shots after they said Nieto pointed what they believed was a handgun at them — it turned out to be a stun gun he carried for his job as a private security officer. Suhr initially said Perez-Lopez charged an officer with a knife and was shot in self-defense — a private autopsy showed Perez-Lopez was shot in the back.
Then in December, police fatally shot stabbing suspect Mario Woods more than 20 times on a Bayview sidewalk. Suhr initially said Woods had raised a knife in a threatening manner, but video indicates Woods raised his arm after the first shot was fired.
That appeared to be a turning point in the perception of Suhr, who was criticized as blindly defending his officers. Suhr said he was only presenting the facts as he knew them.
Quick on the trigger
Days after the shooting, the chief moved to enhance the de-escalation training for officers encountering subjects who are a threat only to themselves. Then in April, police officers in the Mission killed a homeless man they say charged them with a knife. Video showed they fired within 30 seconds of exiting their patrol vehicles.
The fatal police shootings, coupled with new revelations in March that some police officers had sent racist and homophobic text messages in the previous months — the second batch of racially tinged texts to emerge from the department in 13 months — have left Suhr struggling to justify his leadership.
At a neighborhood meeting in April, after the shooting of 45-year-old Luis Gongora, the homeless man, Suhr faced a packed union hall full of people who challenged his account of the shooting.
Throughout, Lee has stood by Suhr.
"I just don't believe that having a different chief automatically gains the kind of groundwork that we are already gaining with the reforms that we have," Lee said at a news conference last week to announce $17.5 million in new funding for violence prevention and police reforms.
Those reforms include training officers to resolve possibly violent situations using de-escalation techniques so that lethal force is the last resort, as well as training to avoid misunderstandings based on cultural differences or implicit bias in officers.
Lee's support of Suhr is backed by some prominent community leaders, including Amos Brown, the head of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, and even Suhr's critics at the public defender's office.
Sylvia Harper, the first African American female commander in the Police Department, who served alongside Suhr before he was chief, said he deserved time to try and reform the department.
"This didn't happen just under his watch. It might have manifested itself under his watch," Harper said. "I think we need to give him, out of courtesy and respect, time to see if the changes he is making and are trying to implement will come to fruition."
Suhr 'needs to step up'
Ealons, the crisis communications expert, said police chiefs are dismissed when they are deemed incapable of managing their officers.
"In this case, (Suhr) needs to step up and demonstrate he has a plan and his No. 1 concern is the public safety of the community and not being seen as a good guy by his officers, because he will lose that fight," Ealons said.
And at a news conference earlier this month to call on the Board of Supervisors to enact police reforms, Deputy Public Defender Rebecca Young said Suhr's resignation would be "an important symbolic act. But it's not going to change the culture."
"We're asking for Chief Suhr to do his job," Young said.
At the beginning of his tenure, Suhr was a bright spot for Mayor Lee, who appointed him in April 2011 when George Gascón became district attorney. A 30-year veteran of the force, he had the strong backing of the police union, Chinatown political powerhouse Rose Pak and state Attorney General Kamala Harris, Gascón's predecessor as district attorney.
"The police union was so happy when he was sworn in," said Angela Chan, who was a member of the Police Commission that helped select Suhr. "They kept saying it was their 'native son' — their native son was being sworn in as chief."
But what Suhr wasn't, she said, was a reformer. And that never appeared to be expected of him.
In 2013, 32-year-old Pralith Pralourng was fatally shot by a police officer after he suffered an apparent mental breakdown and slashed a co-worker with a box cutter. Suhr used the shooting as an example of why his officers needed to be equipped with stun guns, a debate that was revived after the Woods shooting.
"His first response was 'I want Tasers,'" Chan said. "I was alarmed because, looking at the shooting, I was concerned about how officers used time and distance and communication skills for someone in crisis. The chief looked at it as, 'I need to get my officers another weapon.'"
Warning to chief
She said she warned the chief of the very predicament he's in right now.
"At some point, the community is going to say enough is enough, and they're going to be outraged and demand accountability," she said. "I warned him, if you don't get there, eventually the community is going to have enough. And just as I warned him, the community has had enough, and they're asking for him to resign or be fired. It's not like the signs were not there."
And perhaps because there was no widespread public furor or large demonstrations in San Francisco like there were in Chicago, Baltimore and Ferguson — at least until the shooting of Woods — Suhr retained strong political backing. Until last week.
As recently as May 3, when dozens of protesters showed at the Board of Supervisors hearing to demand Suhr be fired, no supervisor had joined the chorus. Supervisor John Avalos considered introducing a resolution expressing "no confidence" in the police chief, but said he decided against it because he didn't think he had sufficient support among his colleagues.
4 supes call for firing
But late last week, four of the most progressive supervisors — Jane Kim, Avalos, David Campos and Eric Mar — said they had lost faith in the chief's ability to reform the department and that he should be replaced.
Lee and his staff have made no secret that they believe political motivations are driving the supervisors' demands. Kim, who was the first to call for Suhr's replacement, is in a race for a state Senate seat against fellow Supervisor Scott Wiener, who last week expressed support for Suhr.
"It doesn't matter which neighborhood he's in, the vast majority of residents don't want to talk about the police chief or the politics of City Hall, they want to talk about more police officers on the street and more focus on neighborhood crime and quality of life," said Christine Falvey, the mayor's spokeswoman. "That's where Mayor Lee's focus is. … The residents get it, even if some of the politicians at City Hall don't."
Political or not, the supervisors' statements gave credence to recent protests, including that of five hunger strikers who went without food for 16 days, but whose support throughout the city was never apparent.
They also increased the pressure on the low-key Lee, who has struggled throughout to handle the situation, said Jason McDaniel, an assistant professor of political science at San Francisco State University.
"I do think his lack of those core public political skills, things that people sometimes take for granted or things people dismiss — that Bill Clinton was too slick — that's allowed a lot of his opponents to control a lot of the narrative of the city and the city's direction much more than he has," McDaniel said. "This is the latest example of that."
'I don't envy the mayor'
"Replacing a police chief is a big, big decision," he added, "so I don't envy the mayor that decision. But they have to be thinking about that possibility now. If they are not, then they are not connected enough to what's going on in this city as maybe they should be."
Lee's options are limited. He wants to stand by a chief he believes in, but whose problems threaten to engulf him politically. He also doesn't want to cave in to pressure from his opponents.
All of which has political insiders at City Hall speculating Lee will keep Suhr as chief through August. By remaining on the job until then, Suhr could begin initiating reforms as he has repeatedly said he is committed to doing.
Also, Suhr, who married last August, would meet the requirement that city employees be married at least a year before retiring to make their spouses eligible for continuation benefits, generally 50 percent of the employee's pension, should they die.
Suhr said Friday that despite the calls for a new chief, he has "gotten so much support from all over the city, including from other board members."
"I am as committed as ever to continue to work with all those that have been contributing to move the department forward to do just that," he said.
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