Sunday, September 27, 2020
Uncategorized Chief Suhr's job review: Things are out of control...

Chief Suhr’s job review: Things are out of control ….

... and the Police Commission needs to ask some hard questions this week.

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The Police Commission meeting tomorrow (Wed/13)  includes an item that hasn’t gotten much attention – but maybe ought to be the focus of a little more interest. It’s Item 7(a), which reads as follows:

Pursuant to Government Code Section 54957(b)(1) and San Francisco Administrative Code Section 67.10(b) and Penal Code Section 832.7: (Possible Action) PUBLIC EMPLOYEE PERFORMANCE EVALUATION:  Chief of Police Gregory P. Suhr

 

Yeah: While lots of activists are out there calling on the mayor to fire the chief, the Police Commission will be giving him a job review. And when that happens, there are a few things that maybe ought to be up for discussion.

Let’s look at what’s happened just over the past few weeks of Chief Suhr’s tenure:

— The department has confirmed that the scandal over racist and homophobic texting by officers was not limited to one case but is apparently more widespread. Hundreds more criminal cases may have to be reviewed, and charges may end up getting dismissed, much as happened in the last round of racist comments.

— A new Chronicle report showed that SF cops searched Black and Latino drivers at higher rates after traffic stops.

— Officers shot and killed a homeless man less than 30 seconds after confronting him, and some witnesses said he was no threat to anyone.

— Then the SFPD released only selected witness statements, bolstering the case of the cops but not presenting the full story.

— The ACLU of Northern California called on the US Justice Department to conduct a more full and detailed investigation of the SFPD after the latest round of racist text suggest that the voluntary audit the feds are doing is nowhere near enough.

— The police union, the SFPOA, is acting as if it runs the shop, saying that the chief and the command staff “need to remember where they come from and stop being puppets.”

— The chief is giving out either wrong information – his blow-up picture of the Woods shooting, which incorrectly implied that Woods was raising his arm, when in fact, that frame came after Woods was shot – or giving out no information at all. In both the Mario Woods case and the Luis Gongora case, Suhr made public statements defending the officers involved – long before all the evidence was in.

— Oh, and there’s more. Suhr, who is an employee of the City and County of San Francisco, gave a blurb under his name and title endorsing the private security service run by former POA chief Gary Delagnes.

 

There are, to say the least, some issues here.

Plenty of people support Suhr, including some progressives who say that at least he is acknowledging the problems – and that firing him won’t magically bring in someone a whole lot better. I get that. But he’s the guy in charge at a time when the department is in a pretty much full meltdown, and if the commission wants to review his performance, the members ought to be asking some serious questions.

And one would think they might want to report back to the public that they are demanding action on a lot of changes.

Suhr (sometimes properly) talks about how there need to be policy changes. But there’s a much larger issue here: Policy changes mean nothing if the existing policies aren’t enforced, and officers and command staff are allowed to violate the rules with impunity. You can order Tasers and set rules for their use; you can rewrite policies on use of force and how to handle mentally ill people. It can sound good on paper.

But we already have a lot of policies on paper that are ignored, and until those rules are enforced, who is going to believe that new policies will make any difference? Based on current practice, the new rules would be ignored, too.

Let’s look at the Mario Woods situation and the Gongora case entirely on the basis of existing policy, the rules that were in place when those shootings happened.

Here is the current standard for the use of a firearm, from the Department’s General Order 5.01. In order to shoot someone, an officer must have

(1) a reasonable belief that the person poses

(2) an imminent danger [emphasis mine] of

(3) death or serious bodily injury

You need all three for the shooting to be legit.

The implication here is that the individual needed to be posing a serious threat before the actions of the officers made things worse. In other words, if Woods or Gongora were simply holding a knife – and not threatening anyone with it – there would be, at the time the officers arrived on scene, no imminent danger.

Then there’s the overall use of force rule, which includes the following:

(a) “the use of physical force shall be restricted to . . . the degree minimally necessary.”

(b)  “force may not be resorted to unless other reasonable alternatives have been exhausted or would clearly be ineffective under the particular circumstances.”

(c) “officers shall, to the extent possible, utilizing an escalating scale of options (starting with verbal persuasion and ending with shooting bullets) and not employ more forceful measures unless it is determined that a lower level of force would not be adequate, or such a level of force is actually attempted and found to be inadequate.”

(d)   “good judgement and the circumstances of each situation will dictate the level (of force) at which an officer will start.”

Again: When the officers arrive on the scene, unless there is an imminent threat – that is, someone aiming a gun at someone else, someone with a knife threatening to kill someone else, that sort of thing – the current rules, the ones every officer is supposed to follow right now, require that every option that doesn’t include force be tried first.

There was, according to all currently available evidence, no reason for anyone to believe that either Woods or Gongora was about to harm anyone else. Woods, the tape clearly shows, wasn’t threatening himself or others when the officers arrived. We don’t have direct camera evidence of Gongora, but if the officers observed him about to stab someone with that knife, they wouldn’t have started with bean-bag rounds.

No: In both cases, the officers came onto the scene where someone with a knife was holding that weapon, but not imminently threatening anyone else.

However, because the officers quickly (in the case of Gongora, in the space of less than 30 seconds) escalated the situation – instead of following the existing rules – a suspect who was no threat was turned into what the cops said was a threat.

Now: In the Woods video, it’s pretty clear that he wasn’t actually threatening anyone, then the cops could have stepped back and done nothing and waited for help and nobody would be dead. In the Gongora case, even if we assume the officers are telling the truth, he only became a threat after they arrived on scene and started firing beanbags at him.

Remember, Gongora spoke little or no English, and likely had no idea why he was suddenly coming under fire from projectiles.

In fact, bean-bag guns are only good at fairly close range, generally less than 20 feet – so in effect the officers had to decide to move close enough that Gongora could attack them before the fired those non-lethal rounds. Was there a threat before they created one?

Under current rules, you can’t create a crisis that requires lethal force and then kill someone. It’s up to the officers to try to de-escalate first.

So even if the police story is completely true in the Gongora case, and even if what Suhr has said (contradicted by video evidence) were accurate in the Woods case, there’s at least a reasonable case to be made that the officers violated existing policy.

Yes, Suhr is right, we can have better training and better policies. None of it matters if there is no accountability.

 

Which brings us back to the chief’s job review.

When you have a department in crisis, and the chief exec is up for a performance review, it’s not enough to say that there are changes needed in policy. He’s had plenty of time to push for policy changes. In the meantime, there is no evidence that he has held officers accountable for the existing rules.

At a certain point you have to say: What are you, the boss, going to do right now,  to get things under control again?

Because Out of Control is a pretty fair definition of the SFPD today. If the commissioners don’t get that, they are way, way, out of touch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

21 COMMENTS

  1. I think the question is: are you so blinkered that you cannot imagine that violent situations can be de-escalated?

  2. There are de-escalation techniques that do not involve the use of weapons. I saw a video of cops in Scotland disarming a man with a knife without using guns or tasers. Think of that!

  3. Wow this video looks like members of ISIS executing a hostage… Are the police in SF going to start beheading homeless people?
    RR592 race isn’t really the issue here in my opinion. How would you like to be walking home with your kid and get hit by a stray bullet?

  4. Why would you deny cops a non-lethal option when the only escalatory option is firearms?

    Do you hate felons and perps that much?

  5. “But without tasers there is nothing between percussive neutralization…and shoot-to-kill.”

    Gee, Spam, it’s amazing that cops have survived over the centuries. Perhaps there’s no longer a need to train them in proven de-escalation tactics because the taser has rendered them moot.

  6. I am not the one complaining about our nation. That would be you. Convince me that we need to change anything. Or else accept the situation.

  7. …rinse and wash dude…fox awaits ..with palin gone there’s a opening…for a bright mind…like yours

  8. It is refreshing to encounter someone who cares so little about whether or not others believe he has any credibility.

    I commend you on your insouciance.

  9. …of course you don’t…there’s a phrase for that…perhaps if you read a book , instead of babbling your insipid..”observations”..u might learn something…but hey dude …shouldn’t you be watching “hannity” and the rest of your fox friends….I’m gonna get me some facts now boss..

  10. You don’t need to do anything, naturally, as long of course that you have no desire to substantiate your allegation.

    I am not going to “do anything”. Mostly because I don’t need to.

  11. ….go read a book dude….I don’t need or show you any papers…what you gonna do?,…forward my post to the police?..you’re a real….sweetheart.

  12. ….yeah you’re right…in each and every case the person of color is wrong…hey…why don’t you just post numbers on us so you can collect points…then you can “give the money to the schools.”.. Like our successful lottery…yeah we cause it all…just by being there..if we just weren’t born…this wouldn’t be happening..you’re a real sweetheart man..

  13. Well sure, any weapon that neutralizes a perp will carry some risk of permanent harm or death. That’s true of a beanbag or a nightstick.

    But the real point is that tasers do incapacitate a perp with a far lower fatality rate then using regular sidearms.

    They provide an option to opening fire that is far less lethal. So why not give the cops that option? I cannot take anyone seriously who opposes tasers and yet who laments that some violent felons end up getting shot.

  14. Do you have any evidence that SFPD have shot any non-white where in an identical situation they would not have shot a white?

    Isn’t the problem more that non-whites get themselves into these situations much more often, in which case it’s not racism at all?

  15. The problem with tasers is that police use them preemptively to subdue people without provocation. Police also use them in an unauthorized manner in ways that can cause serious injuries. Tasers have also been shown to cause damage to the heart and brain. If you think tasers are a magical solution to police brutality, think again.

  16. …can’t articulate the joy of being a black taxpayers in this town, knowing I’m helping pay the cops retirement as they pass racists texts back and forth and shoot minorities with impunity..American Exceptionalism…..lovely.

  17. Good point on the tasers. The complaint seems to be that the police don’t escalate in a more gentle, orderly and graduated way. But without tasers there is nothing between percussive neutralization (beanbags and nightsticks) and shoot-to-kill.

    The intermediary option of electrical neutralization has been denied to the cops. Essentially the police commission has blood on its hands because of its unduly ideological stance here.

  18. I suspect the people supporting Suhr remember the ineffective leadership of Fred Lau & Heather Fong, followed by the psychodrama of Earl Sanders and Alex Fagan.

    The police commission can’t duck accountability on this – the SFPD has been asking for tasers for a long time, and has been refused them for ideological reasons. I suppose the idea was that would encourage officers to find less drastic ways of subduing suspects, but the end result is that they only have the option to escalate to deadly force. As usual, the best is the enemy of the good.

    As for the SFPOA, it needs to be brought to heel, but I don’t see the political will for this short of the Feds imposing a consent decree on the City. Even then, it’s no panacea, as Oakland can attest.

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