Police Chief Resigns: What Does it Mean for Livable Streets?

A photo from August 2013. SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, right, gives a thumbs up at a stop light on Seventh Street on yesterday's bike-share celebration ride to City Hall. Photo: Aaron Bialick
A photo from August 2013. SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, right, gives a thumbs up during happier times (in this case on a bike-share celebration ride to City Hall). Photo: Aaron Bialick

As Streetsblog readers have surely heard, police Chief Greg Suhr was forced to resign Thursday after the shooting of an apparently unarmed woman by SFPD. The police shootings of Mario Woods in December and Luis Gongora in April both seemed to show a department where officers are failing to deescalate situations and are too quick to resort to deadly force. As the Chronicle explained:

Mayor Lee had stood by the chief he appointed in 2011 through two controversial police shootings within the past six months and revelations that a number of officers had exchanged racist and homophobic text messages. But at a late-afternoon news conference at City Hall, the mayor said that after Thursday’s shooting, he had “arrived at a different conclusion to the question of how best to move forward.”

It’s a tricky thing, taking a safe-streets perspective on the resignation. Obviously, the shootings, the texts, and other incidents have contributed to a heightened distrust between the SFPD and communities of color. But it would be remiss not to point out the overlap between vulnerable road users, the disadvantaged, and the way they are treated by city agencies, including the police. It’s no coincidence that the Tenderloin, in addition to all its other problems, is the district with the highest rate of pedestrian-versus-car injuries. And it is the last to get any bike lanes and safety measures. As Walk San Francisco’s director Nicole Ferrara put it:

The recent actions by SFPD have been deeply troubling and we support rapid reforms to ensure that black and brown communities in San Francisco are treated with respect, dignity and equity. We have been working with SFPD to ensure that they are sharing data on crashes and citations, including racial data.

Chief Suhr supported Vision Zero, San Francisco’s ambitious program to eliminate traffic deaths, publicly. But that didn’t seem to bear out on the ground. As Streetsblog readers will recall, just last month a tipster sent us a photo of Suhr’s car parked illegally in front of City Hall, blocking sight lines a few feet from where 68-year-old Priscila Moreto was mowed down by a motorist a few years before.

He was also at odds with bike community over the Bike Yield Law. Streetsblog readers will recall that the Bike Yield law, originally authored by Supervisor John Avalos, was an attempt to get the SFPD to stop focusing an inordinate amount of resources on citing cyclists for rolling through stop signs. But Suhr came out against it. “Stop signs are pretty simple. They say ‘stop,’” Suhr told KQED last year in an interview about the ordinance. “They don’t say ‘yield,’ they don’t say, ‘slow down.’” Suhr added that anyone who violates the letter of the stop sign law “will be cited.” But since the law was about directing precious enforcement resources to the data-driven enforcement of deadliest violations, not changing the meaning of a stop sign, his arguments never made any sense.

In fact, he ran a department where, in practice, cops just don’t seem to prioritize enforcing road safety laws, and, too often, feel entitled to violate them themselves. Streetsblog readers will also recall the bizarre example of San Francisco Police Sergeant Richard Ernst, who intentionally blocked a bike lane right in front of a legal parking spot, to victim-blame Amelie Le Moullac. Le Moullac was run over and killed by a big rig on Folsom which, video evidence showed, was making an illegal right turn. But Ernst felt it was his duty to break the law to tell SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum, in the middle of a remembrance event, that cyclists who get right hooked by trucks are somehow at fault for their own deaths.

Sgt. Ernst denied pleas for him to move his vehicle. Photo: SFBC
Sgt. Ernst denied pleas for him to move his vehicle. Photo: SFBC

Suhr later apologized for Ernst’s behavior. But, as Streetsblog readers will recall from past reporting, the victim-blaming continued, as with this tweet from the SFPD following a spate of pedestrian fatalities in 2014:

SFPDTweet

It would be unfair to pin every fault of the SFPD on Suhr. And when it came to Automatic Speed Enforcement (ASE) cameras, Suhr was very much on the side of streets advocates. As Ferrara puts it:

We’ve also been working on a strategy to increase the unbiased enforcement of speed through Automated Speed Enforcement (ASE), as speed is the root cause of most traffic deaths and serious injuries in our city, which disproportionately impacts our low-income communities and communities of color. Chief Suhr has been a vocal supporter of ASE, and while I have not yet had the opportunity to work with Interim Chief Chaplin, I hope that he will support this strategy, which requires state policy change faces serious hurdles from other police interest groups throughout the state.

Other safe streets advocates we spoke with found Suhr generally supportive. But under his watch, the police department continued to produce local Captains who were refusing to adopt data-driven enforcement under Vision Zero. With the predictable result that street deaths have not been going down.

As Supervisor Kim pointed out in her editorial, if Suhr was unable to change the culture of the SFPD, whether it’s about racist text messages, excessive force, discrimination, or a failure to protect vulnerable road users, it seems it was indeed time for him to go.

The question is, will his replacement do any better on all–or any–of these fronts? Streetsblog started making inquires yesterday about Interim Chief Toney Chaplin, reportedly an Oklahoma native and 26-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department, and his views on pedestrian and cycling advocacy. We will update as information comes in. In the meantime, please let us know if you think SFPD improved, got worse, or was unchanged in its attitudes towards vulnerable street users under Suhr.

  • Justin

    Realistically, chances are that the culture and the status quo at SFPD regardless of who is the police chief will remain unchanged period. Police officers will still blame bicyclists for collisions they are not at fault of, waste resources for bike enforcement that have no effectiveness in making streets safer as well as oppose any proposals such as the Bike Yield Law or the Idaho Stop Law. I am doubtful any reforms will occur unless I actually see it happen. Just being realistic and not trying to paint a gray gloomy picture, but don’t expect any huge changes soon, long term, meh, maybe.

  • AhmadChalabisFoRealz

    Very interesting post. It would be good if you spend an equal amount of time on the impact of crime and criminals on streets and street life.

  • Because if you don’t support Greg Suhr as the SF Chief of Police, you are therefore pro-criminal? What country are you from that critique is seen as an offense?

  • AhmadChalabisFoRealz

    No, you clearly missed the point. Its that Streetsbliog finds fit to doscuss the impact of policing on street life (a fair issue) but rarerely on the impact of criminals and crime on destroying communities and normal street life, particularly in liow-income neighborhhods…i know that most people here live in a worls of duality (cops bad/never good), but sometimes life requires complex analysis.

  • Boy, that is “complex”. In order to provide balance when critiquing the specific actions of a specific police chief one must “spend an equal amount of time on the impact of crime”.
    The false dichotomy is built into your original post.

  • jd_x

    Suhr was doing a very poor job of adapting to the changing expectations from this city over how its streets should be used, i.e. not just for cars. Not to mention how bad street crime has gotten in this city on his watch, now the worst per capita in the nation (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/25/us/san-francisco-torn-as-some-see-street-behavior-worsen.html?). Honestly, I think he has been pathetic as a leader. The police force and its ridiculous car-centric bias (as well as its even more ridiculous bias against minorities) comes from the top. Suhr has had yeas to fix it, if he really could and wanted to, and nothing has changed. So he needed to go. But now the question is: can we find somebody better? That’s what worries me most, that his replacement will be more of the same.

  • murphstahoe

    That’s what the SFGate comments section is for.

  • AhmadChalabisFoRealz

    Telling inconvenient truths?

  • p_chazz

    Police do not have a constitutional duty to protect you: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/28/politics/justices-rule-police-do-not-have-a-constitutional-duty-to-protect-someone.html?_r=0 ; and just because someone has a different vision from you doesn’t make him wrong.

  • jd_x

    I never said they did have a constitutional duty to do so. I said that the department is biased. And that’s wrong in my books.

  • Wendy

    Presently, Vision Zero is mostly bureaucratic jawboning whereas, I think, there should be more of a focus on plain old traffic engineering. There is a study – done by the MTA – showing that while their 20-year redlight camera experiment hasn’t made a difference, the minor engineering improvements made at the camera enforced intersection have made a lot of difference.

    For those who would like to read that study, do a Google on (in quotation marks) “SFMTA Red Light Camera Annual Report 2014” and then
    click on the link to the highwayrobbery webpage, and then scroll down to Set #
    4.

  • neroden

    The only way to change things will be with a police chief who is willing to *arrest* police officers and police captains when they blatantly commit crimes on camera. The rot is within the department, and only a chief who is willing to throw hundreds of cops in prison can fix it.

    Same as most of the other corrupt PDs in the US. The primary problem is a culture where cops act like the mafia and refuse to arrest or prosecute other cops. This is how you end up with corrupt cops running amok — when they break the law they never get punished, so they continue to break the law. The most cops typically have to do when they’ve committed crimes is “apologize”, when they should lose their jobs, pay fines, and go to prison.

  • neroden

    The police do, however, have a constitutional duty to *not commit crimes themselves*. They also have a constitutional duty to obey the 14th amendment’s requirement to provide “equal protection of the laws”, but unfortunately in corrupt departments they will let cops get away with crimes just because they’re cops; this is a constitutional violation.

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