Monday, February 24, 2014

SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, a "Cop's Cop," Addresses City Democratic Club

By Erik Cummins
First Vice President

Club Treasurer Steve la Plante (left) on
SFPD Chief Greg Suhr: "A cop's cop"
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr doesn't need a public relations person. Or at least he didn't need one when he met with the City Democratic Club February 20.

(For that matter, he doesn't need a driver, since he drives himself, or a security detail. It would be hypocritical, he said, to suggest that he couldn't be safe in a town that he's tasked with keeping safe.)

Speaking at the historic Chancellor Hotel near Union Square, Chief Suhr was gregarious, candid, well informed and, at times, blunt. He spoke with a distinctive brand of humor, sometimes poignant and occasionally hard-edged. This was a detail-minded administrator whom longtime club officer Steve la Plante introduced as a true "cop's cop."

A tough time to start

Suhr, a native San Franciscan whose great-grandfather founded Tadich Grill, joined the force in 1981 as a beat cop in the Tenderloin. In 2011, after making his way through the "chairs," Mayor Ed Lee appointed him Chief. Suhr allowed that it was a "tough time" to start. He inherited a poor reputation in the community, a high crime rate, a multi-million-dollar budget gap, an FBI investigation, and the need to let go of 300 officers.

With the recession over, Suhr said that now "it's hard to believe we had [a budget gap]." He cut $2.4 million from the top, eliminating some legal and upper civilian positions and negotiating a staggered system of employee raises with the Police Officers' Association.

Relearning responsiveness

Next, he made the department start answering to the people.

He stripped out the Byzantine phone tree that protected the SFPD from callers.

He broke down the doors, literally. The SFPD's space in the Hall of Justice was a maze that Suhr deemed reminiscent of the 60s TV show "Get Smart." Suhr ordered the doors blocked open.

And he brought the department into the 21st century. At Suhr's 2011 appointment, Facebook was already top of the heap, but the SFPD didn't even have email. Suhr established email -- "It took a signature," he quipped -- but kept going, handing smartphones to all officers and connecting them to criminal-justice databases that allow real-time research in investigations. Now, instead of being last in tech, the SFPD was first in California.

(The phones aren't always for finding perps. Once an officer responded to a blocking-driveway tow call. The officer ran the plates and saw the vehicle registered next door. He knocked on the owner's door. It was a genuine mistake; car moved, tow avoided.)

Community policing

As for his much-publicized community policing efforts, Suhr hates it. Not the work, but the term itself. "It's just policing," he stressed. "It's just people."

His marching orders: "Do more talking." As a result, he said with a grin, officers are "becoming more and more charming." The public is responding. Now chats with neighborhood people yield bonds, yield trust, and sometimes yield information relevant to cases.

Suhr also has worked to break down barriers among expert disciplines.  Likewise, he has distributed the force's motorcycles and dirt bikes from the Hall of Justice to the areas where they are most needed, like Golden Gate Park.

Stay in school, stay out of prison

A key way to reduce crime, Suhr said, is to get kids to stay in school, high school in particular. Engaging youth is a primary focus of his and one that he extends to the force. He expects his officers to spend time as adult mentors to kids in boys and girls clubs. He cites a strong statistical correlation between crime and high-school dropout rates.

Suhr noted that since the state began to move inmates from state to local facilities -- from where many are released into communities -- property crimes are up 20 percent. But thieves have moved into the 21st century as well.

"Open air street narcotics are way down because the bad guys are stealing cell phones," he said. A stolen phone can be worth $200 cash. Phone theft now makes up 2/3 of robberies. The SFPD has been lobbying, with other groups, to provide a "brick" button, making a stolen phone useless, forever, once reported stolen. The carriers are resisting this.

Walking on the streets of San Francisco

There have already been four pedestrian deaths this year. It is February.

"It's a super crowded city," Suhr said. The City has gained 125,000 residents in 20 years and 96 percent more bicycles since 2000, many of whom are checking Facebook on the street.

"Inattention is a big problem," Suhr said, both for drivers and pedestrians. As kids, we were taught to look both ways -- and we don't. California law gives pedestrians the right of way in nearly all circumstances. To those who see this as carte blanche for crossing anywhere at any time, Suhr cautions: "You might be right, but you could be dead right."

Sleeping on the streets of San Francisco

The last comprehensive census of the homeless was ten years ago and counted 6,500 homeless. Since then, the City has housed 10,000 people and given another willing 8,000 the transportation costs to return them home. In the last census, we still had 6,500.

Despite helping 18,000 people, Suhr said, the headlines blared: "City does nothing on homelessness." But it's no wonder critics think the City is doing nothing, he said, looking grimly at the top-line number.

Making the future brighter

"You're going to see a lot more officers walking around," Suhr said. "Technology is getting better." Improved technology, for instance, has helped the department to clear more homicide cases this year than have occurred. Officers can search case files and look up license plate numbers from their smartphones. Suhr said phones are an officer's best friend -- not only the officer's own phone, but also the one that a suspect was carrying.

Suhr was encouraged by the number of young officers who want to live and work in San Francisco. Having local officers is important, he said. "The best police officers anywhere have to have some skin in the game." On the other hand, he noted that having non-local officers isn't a real security risk for the City, provided staffing is done intelligently.

Call me, definitely

Don't be concerned about "bothering" us with calls, Suhr said. It's the department's job. "We're never too busy to take a phone call."

At the meeting, Suhr took specific concerns from the membership, wrote them down, and promised to have them investigated.

The room nodded its belief.

The City Democratic Club thanks SFPD Chief Greg Suhr for making the time to speak to us.

Club President Michael Ho (left), Second Vice President Heidi Machen, and SFPD Chief Greg Suhr