After a Bayview Station sergeant shot and killed an unarmed 27-year-old woman Thursday — the third fatal killing by San Francisco police in just over six months — Mayor Ed Lee signaled he had enough.
After months of insisting Chief Greg Suhr was the right person to reform the department, he said, “Today I have arrived at a different conclusion.”
Lee’s demand for Suhr’s resignation was not a swift reaction to months of mounting discontent and vociferous protests, including in recent weeks a hunger strike and a number of city supervisors calling for the chief’s job. But it was the right call.
Now that Suhr is no longer chief, the problems that have plagued the San Francisco Police Department do not disappear. The public breakdowns in the ranks — violence against suspects, mistrust in minority communities, a seeming lack of discipline for bad behavior and a string of scandals involving racist text messages — have painted a picture of a department in disarray. As leader, Suhr was ultimately responsible for the bad behavior of his officers. Sure, the problems went beyond the chief himself, but the events of the past year illustrated how much leadership matters, and Suhr was unable to lead the department out of all the recent scandals.
Suhr’s ouster does not solve the dysfunction, but his departure removes an impediment to move forward.
For the time being, Toney Chaplin, a 26-year veteran of the department, will serve as acting chief. Many have called for a national search to find a permanent replacement and have urged a departure from the “good old boys” insider network that Suhr represented, and which some observers said contributed to the lack of discipline. The City deserves a thorough and broad search for its next chief, but promoting someone from within shouldn’t be off the table if they can provide the independent leadership the role requires.
Whether Chaplin has the right qualities remains to be seen. On his first day on the job Friday he spoke of two immediate priorities: getting police body cameras into the field and completing the use-of-force reforms that have been such a contentious issue. These are good first steps and we welcome the start of his tenure with optimism.
In addition, promoting a respected veteran black officer to lead the department at time when there has been heavy criticism of how minority communities are policed was an encouraging move by Mayor Lee. After months of seeming to be tone-deaf on the issue of police reform, Lee appears to have woken up to the issue with this latest fatal shooting. He might have arrived late to the party, but we commend him for making the right call last week, for the good of both The City and the SFPD.
A vast majority of our police officers work hard, under trying conditions, to make The City safer and better every day, a job made only tougher by the recent crisis of leadership. We are tremendously grateful for their service and hope this change makes their jobs easier and safer.
But the work is not done. It is not time to cheer anything. We must not forget in all this needed transition at the top, people have lost their lives under circumstances that have not been fully disclosed.
Last week, a young woman was shot to death trying to flee from police in a stolen car — details of the incident are still murky. Likewise, we await the findings of investigations into the deaths of Mario Woods, killed by police on Dec. 2, and Luis Gongora, killed by police April 7.
Now with Suhr’s removal, the hope is The City might be closer to learning the facts of these incidents and closer to real police reform that better protects both San Francisco police officers and the communities they serve.