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Former Police Chief Greg Suhr got a raw deal

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Former SFPD Chief Greg Suhr (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner file photo)

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.

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  • Allen Jones

    I don’t deny that Suhr was a scapegoat. Suhr had to go regardless of being a scapegoat. And this article is self-promoting as well as speaking to the gullible and naïve. Never mind the fact that Suhr was also trying to appease instead of lead.

  • theprez98 (总统)

    Mr. Selby was a co-author to a book that addresses many of the same issues at play in San Francisco. That makes his expertise, encapsulated in his book, entirely relevant to the discussion. So who really cares if he’s self-promoting. He wrote the book, he gets to say he wrote the book. I’m glad he wrote the book and you should be too.

  • Not A Native

    I attended the Blue Ribbon Panel meeting where Suhr answered question and listened carefully to his statements. I can say with 100% certainty his statements showed he isn’t the kind of police chief that is characterized in this article. The judges’ questioning him gave withering criticism of both his approach and attitude to his duties. His responses were essentially that every instance of problematic behavior by the department was an isolated incident and didn’t reflect a larger problem. He had no real response to the observation that repeated incidents create a pattern, other than that he was sure such a pattern didn’t exist. He was just not credible and appeared to me to be stonewalling. the judges’ appeared to feel way that too and their report reflected it.

  • granddad1

    Appeasement was demanded by the crooked Mayor

  • SvnLyrBrto

    One of the more overt signs that the police have been out of control under Suhr are all of those radio spots they’ve taken out on KCBS criticizing, and challenging the authority of, their civilian superiors. Primacy over the uniformed services by elected civilian officials is pretty fundamental too the way the country is supposed to work. What happened to charges and punishment for insubordination and “conduct unbecoming”?

  • Whatever the SFPD may be, it is not “nuanced.” Officers shoot people who have no reasonable likelihood of harming either officers or others. And then, they make up self-justifying stories that often don’t hold up when there is video evidence. Indeed citizens need transparency which we don’t get from a department and a police union that protects its own, not us.

  • Allen Jones

    Well call me an ingrate.

  • Patrick Aherne

    Never heard of the 1st Amendment?

  • SvnLyrBrto

    Ever hear of any of the other uniformed services challenging the authority of their civilian superiors in this manner and not facing severe repercussions? Hell, even a beloved war hero like MacArthur got himself unceremoniously received of duty when he got the notion in his head to publicly criticize his orders.

  • websamurai

    Strange how the POA is never mentioned. They run the show and Suhr did not understand that you cannot be management and union guy. I agree with you, this article and book are just self-seeking, after all cops are always right, the public not so much.

  • websamurai

    The police has become “the authority”.

  • websamurai

    Not from SF, but hasn’t crime increased over the past 5 years? Who has been in charge?

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    I hate when people pretend that the 1st amendment gives anyone the right to say anything they want without ever facing any consequences. It doesn’t. It never did and it never intended to. In any line of work if you say things that are insubordinate to your boss or your company, the 1st amendment isn’t going to protect you from being fired.

  • Don Tommaso

    Your full of B.S.

  • Don Tommaso

    The Da won`t prosecute anybody

  • sffoghorn

    The POA, Suhr was “a cop’s cop,” has actively fought all of the reforms suggested in this piece. Suhr would not go up against his own base on behalf of San Franciscans. And he could not impose discipline on the cops he depended on for his power.

    We need to drastically reduce the size of the armed police force and create a first point of contact unarmed public safety force that deals with mental health and substance abuse problems that are not really law enforcement problems.

    And we need to bust the POA which is a racketeering influenced corrupt organization. Until the POA is gone, this will continue to go on and on.