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Looking forward to meeting Chief Scott

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William Scott will be sworn in as San Francisco’s next police chief next year. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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A day after Mayor Ed Lee announced William Scott, a deputy chief in Los Angeles, as his pick for San Francisco’s next police chief, The City’s police union was none too pleased and seemed spoiling for a fight.

San Francisco Police Officers Association President Martin Halloran, notably not in attendance at the mayor’s announcement, issued a terse welcome to Scott, noting that although union officials would have rather seen Interim Chief Toney Chaplin get the job, they “look forward to meeting William Scott.”
It was a not-so-subtle dig at Scott’s outsider status and his unfamiliarity with the San Francisco Police Department. In other words, the message was: He is not one of us.

But Halloran nonetheless concluded his brief statement by saying, “We are committed to helping him move the department forward here in San Francisco.”

Indeed, that has been the main challenge for the SFPD since the resignation of Chief Greg Suhr in May: How can this embattled department — plagued by recent scandals including racist text messages, fatal police shootings, a stalemate over use of force reforms and a chief forced aside — finally move forward?

Evidently, both Mayor Lee and the Police Commission — which forwarded the list of finalists to the mayor — felt Scott was the right person for the job. Lee chose Scott from a list of more than 60 other candidates, including Chaplin and a number of others inside the department.

Praising his pick and outlining some of the deficiencies he feels must be addressed in the SFPD, Lee said, “Bill knows first-hand what it takes to not only implement a series of reforms but also the effort it takes to transform a department, rebuild trust and create a transparent and accountable department.”

As San Francisco Examiner reporter Jonah Owen Lamb wrote last week, “The choice of an outsider from the Los Angeles Police Department — the second such outsider pick in recent years, but only The City’s second black chief after Earl Sanders — was a surprise to insiders who expected one of their own. But it was seen as a positive for reform-minded officers and advisers, and a step away from a continuation of the era of former Chief Greg Suhr.”

Scott’s chief task will be to complete the reforms the department is working on following a critical review by the U.S. Department of Justice, which came on the heels of another inquiry led by the District Attorney’s Office.

“Change is difficult for all of us,” Scott said Tuesday, referring to the called-for reforms.

As if on cue, as soon as the Police Commission passed a new use of force policy Wednesday centering on de-escalation and sanctity of life, it immediately drew fire from the union. The new policy bans officers from shooting at moving vehicles in most instances as well as the use of the carotid hold to restrain suspects. The next day, the POA announced it had filed a lawsuit to halt the changes, claiming they put officers in danger. The police union also pushed for the use of Tasers “to balance restrictions on force options in the new policy.”

Negotiating these disputes are among the challenges that Scott will inherit.

District Attorney George Gascon, who had also been hired from the outside to lead the SFPD and clashed with the POA during his 16-month tenure until he was replaced by Suhr in 2011, said ominously, “If the union gives him an opportunity, he will work well.”

If the POA’s initial huff at Scott’s selection last week is any indication, that may not be easy.

Halloran complained in a memo to city officers last week that the POA had been shut out of the selection process and said Lee, by his pick of Scott, “turned his back on the rank and file.”

Lee’s office disputed this, saying the POA was one of many groups consulted as part of the search process.

It’s particularly unsettling to have the union that represents San Francisco police officers, those responsible for enforcing the laws on our streets and building relationships with citizens — especially those with historic distrust and suspicion of law enforcement — to thumb its nose at the mayor’s pick after a months-long nationwide search.

The mayor and commissioners have done their job. Now, it is time for Scott to do his. The POA should give him a chance to lead before trying to undermine his command.

Once Scott is sworn in, by all means, he should be held accountable for the job he does — by a critical public, by city officials, by the press and by his officers. Scott is undeniably stepping into a difficult and charged job to lead a troubled department at a moment when the police practices are, rightfully, being highly scrutinized in communities across the nation.

As a city, we should — to appropriate Halloran’s phrase — be “looking forward” to Scott’s arrival. We will be watching closely what he does. But for now, there is reason to feel hopeful and extend him a warm welcome.

Michael Howerton is editor in chief of the San Francisco Examiner.

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