Worries persist over legitimacy of SFPD chief search

At least one candidate seeking to become San Francisco’s new police chief has pulled his name from the running, and others have reportedly voiced concerns that the mayor has already made his choice for the next chief.

Earlier this month, KTVU reported that Mayor Ed Lee supports acting Chief Toney Chaplin to become the permanent chief. Chaplin, who that same day told reporters he wants to be the permanent chief, has held the role since Chief Greg Suhr resigned in May after the latest fatal police shooting in The City.

Lee has since challenged KTVU’s report and stated his commitment to the process, which entails the Police Commission sending three candidates to the mayor, who ultimately makes the final selection.

But that has not allayed the worries of current and former candidates.

One candidate, former San Francisco police Capt. John Feeney, who now is chief of Chico State University’s police department, said the story added to his worries that the process is fixed and made him reassess the role he is in now.

“The story did force me to look critically at my current position and the SFPD application process,” he told the San Francisco Examiner in a text message. “Ultimately, I decided that it was a process (including the watered down job announcement etc.) that I didn’t believe would be conducted fairly and that I did not want to subject myself or my family to it.”

And Feeney is not alone.

Police Commissioner Victor Hwang said the head of the search firm hired by the Police Commission, Ralph Andersen, told him some potential candidates also expressed worries the process may be fixed.

What’s more, a handbill claiming that Chaplin is “90 percent in the bag” is reportedly circulating among police brass and has appeared at least one community meeting on the chief search.

It’s unclear who is behind the handbill, which includes other critiques of Chaplin — his quick rise through the ranks, support from the San Francisco Police Officers Association and ending the practice of holding public meetings following police shooting incidents.

The recent concerns about the search of a new chief come in the wake of an already fumbled process.

In July, The City’s $49,000 search firm published a job description on its website with few details about the department’s ongoing reforms or past scandal-plagued years. Since then, that brochure has been edited to include a more thorough description of the department’s challenges, but it does not explain why there were two versions in the first place.

Commissioner Petra DeJesus said she would not take part in a process that has been fixed.
“If the mayor’s telegraphing, that’s really kind of insulting to the whole process,” DeJesus said. “I don’t want to participate in a farce.”

Still, commissioners contend they have confidence in the process.

“There was concern about whether or not this decision has been made,” Hwang said. “If it is a farce, the commission is part of the joke.”

With these worries spreading, some say the best way to reassure the public and candidates is to make the process more transparent.

Former ACLU lawyer John Crew argued in a letter sent to the Police Commission on Monday the three finalists should be publicly named.

“It’s a simple proposition,” he wrote. “Maximum transparency builds community trust and confidence. Unnecessary secrecy breeds suspicion and doubt. Given the recent searches for several chiefs for SFPD’s peer agencies included public disclosure of finalists, I’m not sure how San Francisco would justify being more secretive than these other agencies.”

Crew’s letter said that, in the past year, Chicago, Phoenix, Memphis, San Antonio and Fort Worth all released the names of finalists for chief, and in 2002 and 2009 the same was done in Los Angeles.

“I would push every finalist to allow us to release their name,” said Hwang, though he cautioned such disclosures could embarrass candidates currently employed.

Deirdre Hussey, a spokesperson for the mayor, said in a statement that it’s premature to discuss who Lee will back for chief.

“There is a process for selecting a new Chief that is currently underway that involves the community, advocates, stakeholders and others and their input is crucial,” Hussey said. “The mayor appointed Acting Chief Chaplin because he has faith and confidence that Acting Chief Chaplin can do what needs to be done — move police reforms forward and rebuild trust with our communities.”

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