Selecting a New Chief; A Matter of Perspective

Published Date: 
Tuesday, March 01, 2011

In my 32 years with the SFPD, I have seen no fewer than14 Chief’s of Police come and go. Some have been good, some have been fair, and some have been outright terrible.

During that time, I have witnessed three chief’s who came to us from outside the department. The first two were failures who were supposed to implement change in an “out of control” police department.

Former Oakland Chief Charles Gain was supposed to be a progressive reformer who came to us in the late 70’s. He was named to the position by Mayor George Moscone, the irony in that being that Moscone was one of the most unabashed political “insiders” this city has ever seen.

Chief Gain immediately removed the US flag from his office, repainted the fleet of black-and-whites a “community calming” baby blue, and was the first to pronounce that he would operate more in the vein of a large corporate CEO than a uniformed cop. Gain, an outsider, demonstrated a complete lack of appreciation for our department’s values and traditions, which admittedly, did run deep and had ingrown through the entire fabric of city government. His tenure as our first self-declared CEO met its demise with the assassinations of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk, when ascending Mayor Diane Feinstein looked back to the inside of the SFPD and named Con Murphy as her preferred choice for the top job at 850 Bryant. The outside Chief rational was revisited again a little more than a decade later. In 1993, former San Francisco Sheriff Richard Hongisto was placed on the fifth floor by Mayor Frank Jordan. While he accomplished some interesting things in his short tenure, it was apparent from the start that his self-destructive personal life would lead to an early demise, which it certainly did.

Fast forward to 2009. Again, in the search for an innovative leader, city leaders conducted a national search for someone on the cutting edge of law enforcement who could tame our so-called “out of control” department. Never mind the fact that we were never out of control in the first place. That phrase tends to be the operative justification throughout the country when it’s been decided that an outsider should be the Chief of Police. Believe me, I have been back and forth across this country and have met Chief’s of Police and police labor leaders from coast to coast. I have never witnessed a less corrupt, more diversely enlightened, sophisticated group of police officers than those who serve the SFPD.

Following an “exhaustive national search,” the city welcomed former Mesa, Arizona chief George Gascon who, in my opinion, implemented many long overdue changes in our department. That said, I also would point out that many of our current internal members possess the same talent, vision, and skill set that Chief Gascon possesses. It was interesting to me that Gascon was recruited as someone who could clean up our department. Prior to having a cup of coffee with the folks in Mesa, Gascon had spent virtually all of his formative law enforcement years working his way upward on the deep inside of the LAPD – one of the deepest of the deep insides in all of law enforcement. In addition, I know of no police department under more federal imposed consent decrees than the fabled LAPD.

Chief Gascon introduced to the dusty traditions of the SFPD many fresh-air innovations that should have been implemented years ago. While “CompStat” is new to our department, its existence in most major police departments is old news. The de-centralization of the Inspectors Bureau was also long overdue, as every major police department in the United States has some investigative presence among its patrol force. He pushed hard for Tasers and I believe we will see them distributed to our patrol officers very soon. He was the best I have ever seen at getting out in front of a police shooting before the press took off with their own version of events. He was more then fair on discipline, and was an advocate of “Education-Based Discipline,” an innovation that provides for re-training for minor first-time infractions. He was an effective, charismatic speaker who gained the immediate respect of the public and politicians alike.

The bad news is that talented leaders like George Gascon are probably not going to be in it for the long haul. Most of the Bill Bratton (LAPD) PERF disciples are ambitious, talented, transient individuals who look for the quick fix and then move on to the next better or more high-profile job. Gascon has proven to be no different.

Now, following the abrupt departure of the darling Gascon, the Mayor and Police Commission are in a bit of a quandary. Do they go for another national name with the big rep, or do they look internally for the best candidate who has a cultural, historical, and geographical tie to this department? We here at the POA have no doubt. We know there are qualified, capable leaders in our own ranks. The notion of hiring from within and perpetuating the advancements launched by Chief Gascon are not mutually exclusive propositions. We have people capable of carrying on with these changes. A selection from anywhere but within would be a slap in the face to our many qualified internal candidates, and a clear statement that City Hall has no faith in people who have dedicated their lives and their careers to the city of San Francisco. When one defines tradition in a department such as ours, one major component of that definition is an individual’s loyalty and pride of service to one of this nation’s most diverse, progressive, and quirky cities. It’s no small feat to survive here as an effective and professional police officer. Those inside candidates of who we boast have all proven that they possess the innate “survivor skills” necessary to navigate the treacherous political waters of this city. We need to move forward and establish some semblance of order and continuity. We have the experience, talent, and expertise right here. Let’s utilize it. Let’s show our officers that this is still a department that values loyalty of service, dedication to duty, and has confidence that the law enforcement lineage in San Francisco is second to none. Let’s prove to our rank-and-file that they are the best, and from their ranks will come their best possible leadership.

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