San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr got a raw deal. His resignation might appease overzealous critics, but it will not solve the chronic, societal challenges driving problems in police departments across America.
To hear critics, Suhr was at best a clueless leader who didn’t understand the faults in his staff and failed to implement changes for the better. At worst, he was an active facilitator more interested in protecting his officers more than the public.
On the contrary, he was a dedicated, detail-oriented, genuinely good police leader who cared about San Francisco and his officers.
Any San Francisco police chief is in an untenable position. As the Chronicle notes, serious change will remain for the next chief.
Over the past few years, I and several other law enforcement professionals have been digging into issues behind what the media and activists oversimplify as a rash of police violence. When one looks at the data without preconceptions, lessons emerge, but not the easy ones that some people want.
We studied incidents across America in which law enforcement killed someone. We built a comprehensive database, and assessed the full context of each killing. The results appear in our book, “In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians.”
Our most important findings were that police must be more transparent and that the nation’s mental health and drug abuse crises have reached a breaking point. Suhr might have moved faster on both points, but the San Francisco Police Department was headed in the right direction under his leadership.
In officer-involved deaths, police must release more data, more quickly. When agencies delay, public suspicion and speculation fill the void. Every time police choose transparency, it’s a deposit in the bank of good will. It builds community trust.
San Francisco should accelerate implementation of police body cameras and ensure public access to footage when a death occurs. If there’s no video, the public is less likely to believe the police account.
Our research found that nearly half of all police-death cases involve drug overdoses, mental health crisis or both. This is a staggering figure indicative of tremendous problems. We must stop treating mental health and substance abuse as if they are problems at the margins of society.
There are all sorts of societal reasons why this is so, but the buck stops at the cops — so people view it as a police problem.
Really, it’s a political problem. Congress has slashed funding for mental and behavioral health services since the Kennedy administration. Cuts to institutional support under President Ronald Reagan all but emptied facilities and left people on the streets where confrontations with law enforcement are inevitable.
Yet most police agencies typically have only one or a few trained mental health officers.
San Francisco has done better, and Suhr deserves some of the credit. The Police Crisis Intervention Team is available in an emergency, and 368 patrol officers had received CIT training through March. They can’t be everywhere, but it’s a good start. CIT training saves lives, saves taxpayer dollars and, perhaps most important, improves the lives and treatment of the mentally ill.
Police alone cannot solve the fundamental challenges of transparency, mental health and addiction. They are problems we have created as a society, and scapegoating a good police chief will not make them go away.
The next chief, at a minimum, should revive the push to deploy Tasers. Recent police shootings might have been less deadly if officers had had access to this non-lethal, effective technology. Indeed, it is hypocritical of the public to demand fewer lethal encounters while withholding arguably and demonstrably the best tool to get there.
Sometimes police actions are violent, but they are always nuanced. Understanding what happened and learning lessons requires training and experience with how policing really is done. Suhr brought that to the table. San Francisco will be lucky if his successor does the same.
Nick Selby is a Texas police detective and the founder of the StreetCred Police Killings in Context data project. He wrote “In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians” with veteran police officer, use-of-force trainer and investigator Ben Singleton, and 27-year police officer, use-of-force trainer and expert witness Ed Flosi, MS.