Interim San Francisco police Chief Toney Chaplin almost didn’t become a cop.
That’s because of a traffic stop one night nearly three decades ago.
Now 47, Chaplin was the designated driver that night for a group of friends who had just left a nightclub in San Jose.
An officer and his partner had stopped Chaplin, even though it was another car blasting music that had prompted the stop. When Chaplin handed over his identification, one cop threw it on the ground and demanded another form of ID. Chaplin complied but it wasn’t good enough for the officer, Chaplin recalled in a recent interview posted on YouTube.
Chaplin told the officer if he wanted another form of ID, he’d have to go back to Oklahoma and get his birth certificate. Then Chaplin walked away.
When the officer’s partner approached Chaplin’s car, he handed back the ID and Chaplin told him he had recently applied to be a cop.
That’s when the San Jose police officer poked Chaplin in the chest and told him he’d never make it as an officer. The aggressive interaction left Chaplin shaken.
It became a moment the long-time cop would find hard to forget.
“It’s the angriest I’ve ever been,” Chaplin said. “I tell ya, tears welled up in my eyes.”
On the ride home, Chaplin’s friends tried to convince him that police work, especially after such incidents, was not for him. Then his mother made him change his mind.
“If I withdrew my application, she would fly to California and beat the living daylights out of me for letting someone else dictate the outcome of my future,” Chaplin said.
That story seems to be part of the newly minted police chief’s public image: A man who understands communities of color and how they are often treated by law enforcement.
Chaplin has already started reaching out to the communities most at odds with the San Francisco Police Department. He has met with NAACP leadership, held a community meeting in the Bayview the day after a sergeant fatally shot an apparently unarmed woman — prompting the resignation of ex-Chief Greg Suhr and Chaplin’s promotion to interim chief — and spoke with at least one of the hunger strikers known as the “Frisco 5,” who famously called for Suhr’s ouster.
Edwin Lindo, one of the hunger strikers who has worked with Chaplin in the past, said he’s glad Suhr is no longer with the Police Department and has an open mind about Chaplin.
“He wants to do what’s right,” said Lindo. “The question is, are we gonna have a new Police Department that’s willing to stand up to the [Police Officers Association]?”
For his part, Chaplin told the San Francisco Examiner at Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak’s recent return to The City that he and the Frisco 5 are not that far from one another.
“We talked,” he said. “Now let’s negotiate.”
Those who have interacted with the 26-year veteran cop have mostly good things to say, including the often critical Bar Association of San Francisco.
“He’s really open to change. He’s really open to reform,” said Julie Traun, who chairs the organization’s Criminal Justice Task Force that Chaplin sits on.
Traun said Chaplin is not only a pleasure to work with, but he’s also been open about police work and reportedly told the committee about how he deals with new partners.
“He would talk about when he is assigned a new officer or partner to ride with, he makes it very clear that everything that he does is by the book, and if that officer doesn’t fully embrace that he can get out of the car,” Traun said.
Shawn Richard, of Brother’s Against Guns, said Chaplin has respect in the black community, too.
“To me, he’s the same version of Chief Suhr, because Chief Suhr will call me out of the blue,” said Richard of Chaplin. “His crew in the black community was very respectful.”
Chaplin touts at least one incentive he helped begin in the Oceanview neighborhood. The Taraval Neighborhood Team is a group of officers who, according to Chaplin’s biography in the Bar Association of San Francisco, “found that mentoring, along with fishing and camping trips, did more to curtail violent crime than prior police efforts that focused exclusively on law enforcement.”
Still, Chaplin’s time on the Gang Task Force and his backing of a controversial gang injunction still in place has some wondering about the kind of relationship he had with everyone.
Inside the force, Chaplin also seems to have garnered respect for his police work.
“He has a good reputation,” said Deputy Chief Garret Tom, who was recently named the head of Chaplin’s former bureau of Principled Policing. “The troops respect him.”
Newly appointed Golden Gate Division Cmdr. Ann Mannix, who said Chaplin will do a great job in continuing Suhr’s reform efforts, said the department is in good hands.
Capt. Gregory Yee, who commands the police academy and much of the reforms effort centered on training, said the chief is only a figurehead.
“We still have to do what we do regardless of who the chief is,” Yee said.
A clear past
What is known about Chaplin — other than the qualities of honesty and integrity, often mentioned after his name — gives little indication about the kind of department he will lead and whether he will maintain the course set by Suhr.
Chaplin did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article, and there is little in the public domain about Chaplin aside from a few articles about this time in the Gang Task Force and support for a controversial gang injunction. And there are little to no court records that can easily be accessed.
There has never been a settlement payout involving Chaplin, and his name only appears in one dismissed civil case and another federal case that appears to be less than serious, according to the City Attorney’s Office.
Tiffany Gibson Chaplin, the chief’s wife and a prosecutor with the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, declined to make a statement.
The glowing opinion most have of Chaplin and his clean record includes one incident in his career that stands out: a shooting in 2012 that was seen by many as an act of heroism.
It was Sept. 20, 2012, and Chaplin was working plainclothes in the Mission District with his partner. The pair of Gang Task Force officers were helping San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department officers to make sure youths on probation stayed off the streets at night. The pair was expecting retaliation for a killing that had occurred days before.
Chaplin and his partner were passing 14th Street near Natoma Street around 8:30 p.m. when they spotted a gang they knew. Chaplin exited the car, and a suspect named Oscar Barcenas ran down 14th Street.
Sometime afterward, Barcenas pulled out the Tec-9 he was carrying, and Chaplin told him to put it down. Barcenas instead aimed the gun at Chaplin. Chaplin fired his own weapon and shot Barcenas twice.
While Barcenas survived, the shooting sparked protests in the neighborhood.
According to reports at the time in Mission Local, bandana-wearing vandals rampaged through the Mission for two nights — even the police station. The protests spawned a community meeting from worried residents and business owners.
Chaplin was awarded the Silver Medal of Valor for the shooting.
Former Sheriff and Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi said the choice of Chaplin gives Mayor Ed Lee some breathing room. But his impact on a culture resistant to change remains to be seen.
“You are talking about a systemic problem that’s being saddled in the lap of the new chief, I think, unreasonably,” Mirkarimi said. “There is this disconnect between the Police Department and the community, especially where trust runs thin.”
Timeline with the San Francisco Police Department
June 18, 1990: Entry level officer
Aug. 29, 2001: Assistant Inspector
Oct. 16, 2001: Inspector
June 16, 2005: Sergeant briefly; back to Inspector
Dec. 22, 2012: Lieutenant
April 25, 2015: Commander
Feb. 13, 2016: Appointed Captain and Deputy Chief
May 19, 2016: Interim Chief
Past units served in: Narcotics, gangs, homicide and patrol