As I look back at my many decades of service to the great City of San Francisco, I reflect that our struggle for equality and civil rights has always been most effective when we join hands and worked collaboratively with each other to improve our communities. Our successes were never only attributable to one man or woman – nor were the deep social ails we were healing the cause of one man or one woman. Despite this universal truth, as we have worked with our community and our police department to address issues of culture and bias within the SFPD for decades – there are those who still rely on the blame game and are satisfied to lay the problems of the Department at the door of one person – former Chief Greg Suhr.
When it comes to SFPD, for some reason, while we rally around and support our new Chief Bill Scott, let us also remember that to truly advance our reform agenda and achieve lasting progress -- one thing must be made clear: Chief Scott is in the position to make great change in large part because of Chief Greg Suhr’s action and leadership for reform.
When racist texts circulated among SFPD officers emerged – many of them dating back to the previous chief’s tenure – Chief Suhr set the tone swiftly and clearly, even as the police union fought him: Suhr immediately moved to fire the officers, declaring that racist epithets and the officers who express them “have no place in the SFPD.” He came to Third Baptist Church and answered tough questions about what it meant, what he was doing and how to truly tackle any underlying bias in the Department.
As use-of-force policies and police shootings gained momentum as a national and local cause – Chief Suhr stood with us and embraced law enforcement reforms as an agent of change.
Chief Suhr initiated policies to avoid shootings, measures that became national models for reducing lethal force. His doors were always open to activists, reformers and faith leaders like myself. He welcomed sensible reforms and stood ready to implement, rather than obstruct, them.
Chief Suhr valued the sanctity of life of everyone; prioritized de-escalation tactics; and emphasized the proportionality of any use of force.
Suhr’s leadership paved the way for a steep drop in lethal shootings in 2016. He pushed through lifesaving use-of-force policies – again over the strong opposition of the police union – that now, less than a year later, are showing positive results.
Only a leader determined to do the right thing – and with the trust of the rank-and-file – could push through such reforms, in the face of anger, emotion and mistrust rushing in from all sides.
As the many young people in our most violent neighborhoods know, Greg Suhr, while also a 35-year-veteran of the San Francisco Police Department and former chief, is actually best known for his decades working, arm-in-arm with youth advocates and community members, in some of our hardest hit communities. Long before he became chief, and with no fanfare, Greg Suhr worshiped with us on Sundays, supported community programs and never missed a chance to invest in our young people.
As captain of Bayview Station, Greg Suhr was able to reduce homicides by more than 50 percent. He started a scholarship for youth in the Bayview, contributing his own savings. He was responsible for assigning an officer, for the first time, to the Boys & Girls Club on Hunter’s Point, so that cops and young people could get to know he each other. He helped raise money for a program, led by SFPD officers, to take at-risk youth to Africa, where they could learn about their own heritage.
Juvenile arrests dropped by more than half during Chief Suhr’s time in charge. His aim was to keep children safe and in school, and not in the criminal justice system. He was on our streets, in our schools, in our churches. That is the Chief Suhr we know.
That is an inconvenient truth for those who clamored for Chief Suhr’s dismissal in the midst of a firestorm over police violence and institutional racism. But it is nevertheless the truth.
Greg Suhr is a champion for doing what’s right, a champion for our children, and he should be remembered as the chief who finally embraced reform and set the course for the progress we see today … even if it cost him his job.