San Francisco's new police chief could benefit from latest SFPD scandal

The Police Department is embroiled in a scandal, the FBI has it under a microscope and the former chief is on the outside looking in.

It sounds like a good time to take over as head of San Francisco’s finest.

And in a strange way, it just might be.

This much we know: Mayor Ed Lee is now in possession of the names of the three finalists, two of which are believed to be internal candidates — something that should make the rank-and-file pleased (but only if one is selected).

Lee has said he is not in any hurry and will personally interview all the candidates before making a decision. That’s likely to take at least two weeks.

I’ve been told Police Commission members had some very spirited discussions before deciding on the finalists, which is not surprising considering how split they are philosophically and considering the recent allegations against a group of narcotics officers who allegedly searched hotel rooms illegally and falsified reports.

Those incidents, which so far have resulted in 68 cases being thrown out by the District Attorney’s Office, were front and center during the candidates’ interview process, according to police commissioners.

“It’s something we talked about a lot,” said Tom Mazzucco, the president of the Police Commission. “Obviously we wanted to know how each of the candidates would have handled the matter. It definitely played a role in our decision.”

But that’s also why calls demanding an external candidate not familiar with the department’s culture and history are misplaced. The next police chief does not have to decide how that case will be handled — it’s already being investigated by the department and the FBI.

The key part of the probe isn’t even whether the officers conducted an illegal search. It’s whether they lied about their actions, which will make the chief’s and the commission’s final decision a lot easier.

“If they lied under oath, that’s a huge problem,” Mazzucco said. “You can’t lie and be a police officer.”

That would certainly be the stance of the former chief who is now the district attorney, George Gascón. He told me several times during his tenure that there’s a difference between making a mistake as a police officer and doing something knowingly wrong. One is punishable, the other career-ending.

And Gascón’s presence and style still remain a big part of the ongoing proceedings. From the outset, police commissioners maintained that any candidate would have to continue the reforms started under the former chief’s watch. The fact that Gascón was the first chief to come from outside the department since the 1970s also should make it easier for someone inside the force to take over, since the blueprint is already there.

Although there was some consternation about Gascón’s new role and the fact that the narcotics incidents happened while he was still police chief, whoever gets the job will have one thing previous department heads did not: A good relationship with the district attorney.

For people who do not understand the importance of that, I offer two words: Terence Hallinan.

Mazzucco, who was part of the previous panel that focused on Gascón, said the interview process was even more thorough this time.

“We made these picks as a commission,” he said. “We’re confident that we selected some very strong candidates.”

No doubt there will be grumbling, and criticism is a certainty. A department notorious for back-stabbing will be on guard. The new chief doesn’t even have to wait for a scandal — one is already brewing.

In San Francisco, it couldn’t be any other way.

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