Gascón changed the game for SF police chief search

In a strange way, it may have taken an outside reformer to make way for a talented insider to once again lead the San Francisco Police Department.

That decision is still at least a month off, but the recent changes at the Hall of Justice, which saw an external candidate make wholesale changes in personnel, policy and behavior at the department during the past 19 months may well serve the mayor’s current administration and the next.

Former Chief George Gascón’s heralded arrival and his sudden departure to take over as district attorney caused some bruised feelings among officers who reluctantly but ultimately bought into the department’s new system, only to see its architect leave for more challenging adventures.

But now the Police Commission, which plans to start winnowing down a list of 25 candidates this week, has a clear idea of what it wants in a new chief: One that will continue the changes initiated by Gascón, who also has the type of experience that saw the first so-called “outsider” named chief in more than 35 years.

“If some of the candidates have looked closely at what he’s done in the past 19 months and grasped modern policing policies, than you’ll likely have some viable candidates,” said Thomas Mazzucco, president of the Police Commission. “We’re looking to continue the progress that’s been made and we want somebody so strong that the next mayor will be comfortable with them.”

That’s an interesting dynamic because finding someone who has the requisite level of top command experience and other recommended traits such as being the “right fit” for San Francisco will narrow the field down considerably.

Plus the fact that the San Francisco Police Officers Association would prefer an internal candidate — and will be an important ally in the mayor’s race — is one of those delicate maneuvers waiting to be waged by those involved in the selection process.

Some respected names have already been thrown out, including Cmdr. James Dudley, Capt. Denis O’Leary, Capt. Al Casciato and retired Capt. James Molinari, Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s longtime aide-de-camp. But the person who is most often mentioned is Bayview Police Station Capt. Greg Suhr, who has long been popular with community groups and in diverse political circles, if not always in the back-stabbing confines of the department itself.

Suhr has already been a deputy chief and, along with late Chief Alex Fagan, was generally credited with running the department during the titular tenure of former Chief Earl Saunders. And he was always thought to be one of a handful of possible successors until he ran afoul of former chief Heather Fong, who, after a few years of relatively effective stewardship, developed a penchant for promoting and then demoting her commander staff and dispatching them to the department’s equivalent of the gulag — in Suhr’s case to be homeland security chief for the city’s Public Utilities Commission.

No one outside the Police Commission knows the names of the applicants, though I’ve been told a surprising number of external candidates have applied — a curious thing since it’s still conceivable that if Mayor Ed Lee decides not to run for election this year, the next mayor could decide to make their imprint with another police chief search. But it’s worth noting that at least two of the six current candidates for mayor are known to strongly back Suhr.

“Based on my years of experience as a police commissioner and as an attorney defending police officers, we have made a lot of progress in the last 19 months,” City Attorney Dennis Herrera told me. “And I think the most important thing we can have is stability in the department and someone who can inspire confidence among the rank and file.

“I don’t know everybody who has applied but based on my criteria for a chief, I don’t think you could find a more qualified individual than Greg Suhr.”

Lee said he wants Gascón’s work to be carried on, which bodes well for the internal candidates who wouldn’t face an impossible learning curve in running the department. And the mayor, himself a longtime city government insider, should understand the benefits that come from working within the system.

It’s not a political decision. It’s a practical one.

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