At the swearing-in ceremony of new police Chief Greg Suhr on Wednesday, one thing really stood out — and it wasn’t the terrible acoustics in the rotunda at City Hall.
It was the crowd, consisting of conservative judges, lefty lawyers, retired city department heads, former classmates, enough police officers to hold back a riot and a wide cast of colorful friends, gay, straight and narrow.
It was a rainbow coalition — a snapshot of San Francisco — and the reason why so many people are happy that a long-deserving homegrown kid finally gets his shot at the top.
If anybody represents what people consider real San Francisco values, it’s Greg Suhr, a man who cuts across all lines political, racial and social. And after 30 years of proving himself in just about every part of the department, Suhr now has a chance to be one of the best police chiefs The City has known.
Few people have overcome more obstacles to land in the spot they were destined to be, including a former boss who went out of her way to undermine Suhr (and, for that matter, many others). Yet Suhr’s career was rehabilitated in a most old-fashioned way: He bore down, purposely kept out of the spotlight and did his job.
I asked Tom Mazzucco, the president of the Police Commission, how it came to be that Suhr was finally elevated by Mayor Ed Lee to a post most people thought he should have had 10 years ago.
“It was the community that picked Greg,” Mazzucco said. “Whether it was older patrol officers or the people that showed up at our meetings, almost all of them said they wanted Capt. Suhr, even if they couldn’t pronounce his name right.”
The uninformed like to characterize Suhr as part of an “old-boy network” because he went to St. Ignatius High School and the University of San Francisco, two schools that have produced an inordinate share of city leaders. What they don’t understand is that city natives often represent the best of San Francisco, reveling in its traditions while willingly changing with the times.
When Suhr was a captain at the Mission Police Station, he was working very close to where his family ran a mortuary. His grandfather served on the Board of Supervisors. His relatives started and still run Tadich Grill, the oldest restaurant in The City. He knows the demarcation lines between the Sunset and Parkside, Dogpatch and Little Hollywood, the Tenderloin and the Tendernob. If you ask him about Playland, he knows you don’t mean some Polk Street bar.
Lee deserves a lot of credit for showing the strength to pick Suhr, knowing that critics would be harping on his baggage, most of which was unnecessarily foisted on him. Lee said he and Suhr share a common thread, having worked in virtually every corner of The City. He also understands that in a 30-year career, there are going to be some blemishes.
Yet Suhr’s ascension also is noteworthy for another reason:
It officially marks the passing of Fajitagate as a noteworthy event. The fact that Suhr was embroiled in controversy by just happening to be on a command staff that had obstruction-of-justice charges filed against it by a reckless district attorney is no longer even deserving of a historical footnote.
Suhr had a good line about being a “local hire” in his speech, but he knows he has his work cut out for him. Steering a department with almost 2,000 people is a near-impossible task. He will have to deal with pressure from his union, which backed his candidacy. And he will have to manage the expectations of his department allies, those he had in the past and the others who jumped on board Wednesday.
But his experience has shown him to be a careful decision maker. He is a natural leader. When Suhr was a district station captain, his young officers worked tirelessly for him. He understands community policing and the need to push for new reforms and training.
He also understands that if you ask him where he went to school, you don’t mean college.
Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The San Francisco Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.