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Chief search turns SFPD inside out

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An art installation by Shimon Attie, “Spiral of Gratitude,” honors fallen San Francisco police officers inside the Public Safety Building. (Gabrielle Lurie/2015 S.F. Examiner)

With just over a week until the Aug. 31 deadline closes for applicants to become San Francisco’s next police chief, law enforcement experts are questioning whether The City will keep with tradition by hiring a chief from within or if it will break with the past by picking an outsider.

The search comes at a time when police violence and meaningful reforms are at the center of the national debate on policing, and appointing an insider versus outsider to lead the Police Department offers various advantages and disadvantages, according to observers who are watching the process carefully.

The last chief, Greg Suhr, was dismissed in May in the wake of a third fatal police shooting in six months and mounting pressure for his ouster. Since then, Toney Chaplin, who has been with the department for more than two decades, has served as acting chief and recently announced he would like to be considered for the permanent role.

Chaplin has little executive experience, but his tenure with the department includes a stint on the gang task force and the homicide unit, among other roles.

“There are many departments who select their chiefs from within their ranks,” said Darrel Stephens, executive director of Major Cities Chiefs Association. “It’s, I think, kinda all over the board.” While some may place great significance to the distinction, Stephens cautioned that narrowing down a choice between insiders and outsiders is too much of a simplification for a very difficult call.

Whomever is finally chosen — the Police Commission will forward three finalists to Mayor Ed Lee, who has the final say — San Francisco has a tradition of promoting from within the ranks to lead its force. There have only been two chiefs appointed from outside the force in recent decades, and both had controversial tenures.

District Attorney George Gascon, appointed chief by former Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2009, was the SFPD’s last appointed outsider. (Interim Chief Jeff Godown, who filled in as the department’s leader after Gascon left, was also an outsider.)

Gascon, who spent much of his career in the Los Angeles Police Department, was not beholden to anyone in San Francisco and known for dealing with police accountability issues. But some in the department took his outsider status, and department shake-up he enacted, as marks against him instead of seeing such attributes as a positive.

That mixed legacy included shaking up the command staff and bringing new training to the department, said Police Commissioner Petra DeJesus.

“He brought a real diverse police experience with him and he brought things other departments were doing but we weren’t doing,” said DeJesus. “Before that they were doing things because it was the way they always did it.”

In the past 40 years, the only other outsider named chief was Charles Gain, whose legacy, according to some, was also mixed.

Gain’s attempts to humanize the force only acted as a lightning rod among some rank-and-file officers, and his irregular antics didn’t help. He once posed at a Hookers Ball with a prostitute and seemed to pay far more lip service to segments of the community than the officers he commanded.

During his tenure from 1975 to 1980, during which time he is perhaps best known for changing patrol cars’ color to baby blue, Gain recruited gay officers and tried to soften the negative image many had of the department. For his efforts, the police union led a campaign to oust him, and some rank and file officers even put anti-Gain bumper stickers on their patrol cars.

Despite these two examples, Stephens cautioned that it’s difficult to conclude whether hiring internally versus externally has meaning in and of itself, but he did say that traditionally outsiders are brought in to push reforms.

Insiders have advantages, at times, since they are familiar with department staff, the community and city politics, said Patrick Oliver, a former Ohio police chief with the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

But internal candidates also may have loyalties that could hamper their effectiveness, he said, such as not promoting the best officers, or being less willing to change systems and processes that can be part of the department’s problems. Also, if they have only worked in one department, Oliver noted, they may not have been exposed to other ways of operating and therefore might find it hard to be the catalyst for change that many both inside and outside the department are calling for in San Francisco.

“If the agenda is for reform, an external candidate is going to have a better perspective on making that major reform,” said Oliver. But he cautioned that reforms have only been successful in places where the political establishment backs whoever is made chief, such as Philadelphia under Charles Ramsey and New Orleans under Richard Pennington.

World class cities like San Francisco deserve the best candidates from around the U.S., said Cedric Alexander, who heads the Dekalb County Police Department in Georgia and was appointed to President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. So when Alexander learned that The City won’t require the next chief to have a bachelor’s degree, it sent a message that San Francisco may not be reaching for the stars.

“In a big, sophisticated, well-educated, high-tech city like San Francisco, it all needs to match up,” Alexander said.

For former ACLU lawyer John Crew, a noted police watchdog, the wider the search, the better.

“If the SFPD chief finalist pool proves to be demonstrably less experienced and qualified than those produced in other cities, the public has a right to know that so the underlying problem creating that result can be understood and addressed,” Crew wrote in an Aug. 15 letter to the Police Commission.

Meanwhile, Officers For Justice, a black police organization in The City, has released a list of internal and external candidates they want the commission to consider, as well as the qualities they would like to see in the next chief.

The group said all candidates should have a bachelor’s degree — not a requirement in the current search — and should move to The City within 90 days of being hired. They should also be committed to reforms and have a long track record of leading large organizations.

“If someone with these character traits cannot be identified within the San Francisco Police Department then you have a duty and responsibility to find the most qualified competent candidate to lead by utilizing the best practices of unbiased policing,” noted the Officers For Justice in the memo.

The group’s internal list includes Chaplin (who has said he wants to the job), Deputy Chief Garret Tom, Deputy Chief Mikail Ali (who has been making public appearances at several meetings on police reform), Cmdr. Ann Mannix, Central Station Capt. David Lazar, Capt. Una Bailey and Capt. Glenn Mar, among others.

The group’s outsider list includes a group of big hitters from across the country: former Philadelphia Chief Charles Ramsey, federal Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services Director Ron Davis (COPS is currently reviewing the department), Denver Police Chief Robert C. White (who has told the San Francisco Examiner he has not applied), DeKalb County Police Department’s head Alexander and Dallas Police Department Deputy Chief Malik Aziz (who did not return a call for comment). All are black.

The issue has been compounded by the fact that some high profile candidates have reportedly backed out of the search or fear the SFPD is leaning toward an internal choice.

“Often times it is generally telegraphed that a city already knows who it is going to pick,” said Alexander, the Georgia chief. “I think any potential police administrator who has the strength that many cities are looking for are going to struggle with the fact: Is this already a fix?”

Alexander said The City’s search firm has reached out to him, but he has not decided whether he will apply.

Lee told the San Francisco Examiner last week that he is waiting until he is given the list of finalists by the Police Commission before making his choice. He disputed a recent story by KTVU — which has since been taken down — claiming Lee favored Chaplin for the role. While he praised Chaplin’s job as acting chief in recent months, Lee said he trusted the process to deliver the best finalists to him.

Suhr, the former chief, last week told the San Francisco Chronicle he wants Chaplin to keep the job, as does the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

ACLU lawyer Alan Schlosser said the news that the choice might have already been made is damaging to the reach of the national search, especially during a time of major reforms that the next chief will be responsible for implementing.

“Given [there’s] only a week left, The City or commission should make some strong statement to let potential candidates … know that this is gonna be an open, thorough, transparent process,” said Schlosser, who added that an extended deadline may be a good idea.

“I think a strong statement from the mayor would be the most important thing.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story miscredited former Police Chief Charles Gain as the SFPD head from 1970 to 1980. Gain’s tenure was from 1975 to 1980.

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