News

A Veteran Cop Talks Race and Policing in San Francisco in 2016

We touched on the recent removal of the police chief, racist text messages, and Donald Trump.
May 23, 2016, 7:00pm

Officers work the scene where a 27-year-old woman was shot and killed by police in the Bayview District of San Francisco, Thursday, May 19, 2016. (Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Examiner/AP)

The police killing of a 27-year-old black woman in San Francisco on Thursday may have been something of a tipping point for local law enforcement. Generating national headlines, the woman's death while fleeing cops—she was suspected of driving a stolen car, which crashed shortly after police began pursuit—was promptly followed by Mayor Edwin Lee asking for for Police Chief Greg Suhr's resignation.

The chief called it quits that same day.

The roughly 2,000-strong SFPD has killed three people since December, including one homeless man. So it only figures that, like some other big-city police departments in America, it's facing intense scrutiny from the media and the Justice Department. Not that San Francisco cops haven't found ways to stick out from the pack: racist and homophobic text messages from 14 officers surfaced amid a federal criminal trial last year, and they've continued to plague police-community relations after four more officers were recently implicated in the exchanges.

So if Suhr's resignation was a bloodstained victory for activists and protesters who have been calling for his ouster for months, it's unclear what effect removing the top cop will have on the department and its officers. For an inside view, VICE got on the horn with an SFPD officer who has 20 years of experience, including undercover narcotics work and posts in some of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods. He spoke with us on the condition of anonymity because, like most American cops, he is not an authorized spokesman for his department.

VICE: Chief Greg Suhr resigned after the mayor asked him to. What's going on there, and what are regular cops saying about it?

SFPD Officer: The rank and file are not pleased, particularly with the circumstances in which the chief was asked to resign. He was well-liked. He was honorable. I think everybody recognizes that this is a political move by the mayor because he was getting pressure from a small segment of the community and city officials. It's unfortunate.

But the chief knew, as well as every single cop, that soon after the shooting Thursday we were going to have protests and the potential for riots. And the chief could have said, "No, I'm not resigning," which is what a lot of cops said they wanted him to do. But he doesn't fight it. He is an honorable man. He realizes that if he falls on this sword, he is going to help the city move forward. Plus, he's going to be taking care of all the cops out there in riot gear, getting hit with anything from insults to beer bottles, and maybe worse. So he fell on the sword.

It's an amazing world when the actions of officers on the street directly affect whether or not the chief of police stays employed. People are holding him responsible for split second decisions being made by other people, of which he has zero control in that moment. But yet he is the one who people look to to blame or hold responsible. It's frustrating.

The phase "cop's cop" has been tossed around in a few news stories to describe the chief. What does that mean, exactly, in 2016?
He has our respect. He took an unusual path to be the chief of police. In many cases chiefs, and particularly in other law enforcement agencies, have been groomed from the beginning. They didn't get tough assignments and work in tough neighborhoods. They did administrative assignments: in the rear with the gear kind of gigs.

No, Suhr is a working cop, and was for thirty years. He started out as a patrol officer, and he worked his way up. And when he was chief, he had an open door policy that any cop on the street go in and say, "Hey chief, can you explain to me why this is this way?" Many chiefs in the past were elusive, hands off, and insulated by a number of other administrative officers. And if you're going to be Monday morning quarterbacked (after an officer-involved shooting), you want to be judged by somebody who's walked in the same shoes you're walking in.

When it comes to officer-involved shootings and the national attention they receive, are San Francisco cops afraid the climate may get even worse?
I think there's a deep concern. I mean, more than ever we understand that every single thing that we do is subject to a ton of media attention and public scrutiny, particularly when it comes to officer-involved shootings. But I think that we don't feel like we get a fair shake from the media. In general, the media places undue responsibility on law enforcement, which completely ignores the person, the crook, who is committing these crimes. I don't understand that. We don't pick a name out of a hat and decide that today we're going to make contact with a certain person and transform the situation completely upside down where ultimately it ends with somebody dying. That's not what the police do. If someone does something and that brings them into contact with the police, it's in their interest to comply. Comply when contacted.

It's also often portrayed in a way as if this is something that's happening every single day and that this is the status quo. It's not. In San Francisco, we're dealing with individuals with mental illnesses hundreds of times per day. Officers make contact with thousands of other citizens of all races. And, yeah, sometimes it doesn't go the way that anybody wants it to go—worst case: an officer-involved shooting. But the vast majority of the time it does not get to that level.

What about the racist text messages and claims that there's a culture of racism in the SFPD?
I don't believe, nor have I seen, anything that made me think that there is a culture of racism within this police department. On any given day, your coworkers come from all kinds of different ethnic backgrounds. These are the people that you work with, and in a job like being a police officer in San Francisco, these are the people you count on to have your back. These are your friends.

I will acknowledge that sometimes conversations can be wide open. It's like how players talk shit to one another when they're on their field. There is absolutely trash talk, and it's a culture that I would call gallows humor. It's humor much more harsh—because of the nature of the job— than I think mainstream individuals could necessarily understand. But we've been accused of having institutional biases and racist undertones. Come on, this San Francisco, are you kidding me? Who has time for that?

When I hear about text messages, the first thing you have to remember is these things are taken out of context. That gallows humor is a very hard thing to explain. But it's not institutional racism. Having said that, I have read some of the text messages that have been made public. Some of them, yeah, I thought they were extremely distasteful. And this is from a cop with twenty years of experience. So maybe there are some individuals, because I can't say across the board—I know it makes for a much better story in the media if you make it sound like we're all a bunch of racist cops. We're not. But the bottom line is that even if society doesn't or can't understand cop culture, we still shouldn't be talking to one another or about one another like that.

How have the (polarizing) changes in the city, in large part spurred by the tech boom in Silicon Valley, changed the crime picture in your neighborhoods?
It's had a subtle effect in the Tenderloin. You've got to remember that most of the drug dealers and drug users in the Tenderloin don't live in San Francisco, they commute there. So gentrification is happening and reducing crime in the Tenderloin, but it's slow. The places to buy drugs still move around like they always have: Pill Hill (a good place to score prescription drugs) used to be at Jones and Golden Gate. Now it's at Leavenworth and Golden Gate. I see some ebb and flow, but it's going to take a lot more gentrification to eliminate it. But just look at the Mission District. Huge gentrification effect. I remember Sixteenth Street and Valencia being a really rough place circa 1994, and now you go down there, and it's Whole Foods and Audis.

OK, I have to ask before you go: What do San Francisco cops think about Trump?
Yeah, he might be extreme, certainly by San Francisco standards. And no, I've never seen him talk to a San Francisco cop. But the more interesting thing is that we're concerned with is, if Donald Trump becomes president, he might put an end to sanctuary cities. We work in a sanctuary city. I think most cops believe that there are a lot of hard-working immigrants families in San Francisco, and sometimes they need the police. And we don't want them to be afraid of calling the police. But if San Francisco doesn't go along with the feds [and start enforcing national immigration policies], we're afraid that they will pull a lot of money; it's financial support not only for law enforcement but also for mental health and homelessness. That could be a big problem for San Francisco.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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