SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, a “Cop’s Cop,” Addresses City Democratic Club

By Erik Cummins
First Vice President

Club Treasurer Steve la Plante (left) on
SFPD Chief Greg Suhr: “A cop’s cop”

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr doesn’t need a public relations person. Or at least he didn’t need one when he met with the City Democratic Club February 20.

(For that matter, he doesn’t need a driver, since he drives himself, or a security detail. It would be hypocritical, he said, to suggest that he couldn’t be safe in a town that he’s tasked with keeping safe.)

Speaking at the historic Chancellor Hotel near Union Square, Chief Suhr was gregarious, candid, well informed and, at times, blunt. He spoke with a distinctive brand of humor, sometimes poignant and occasionally hard-edged. This was a detail-minded administrator whom longtime club officer Steve la Plante introduced as a true “cop’s cop.”

A tough time to start

Suhr, a native San Franciscan whose great-grandfather founded Tadich Grill, joined the force in 1981 as a beat cop in the Tenderloin. In 2011, after making his way through the “chairs,” Mayor Ed Lee appointed him Chief. Suhr allowed that it was a “tough time” to start. He inherited a poor reputation in the community, a high crime rate, a multi-million-dollar budget gap, an FBI investigation, and the need to let go of 300 officers.

With the recession over, Suhr said that now “it’s hard to believe we had [a budget gap].” He cut $2.4 million from the top, eliminating some legal and upper civilian positions and negotiating a staggered system of employee raises with the Police Officers’ Association.

Relearning responsiveness

Next, he made the department start answering to the people.

He stripped out the Byzantine phone tree that protected the SFPD from callers.

He broke down the doors, literally. The SFPD’s space in the Hall of Justice was a maze that Suhr deemed reminiscent of the 60s TV show “Get Smart.” Suhr ordered the doors blocked open.

And he brought the department into the 21st century. At Suhr’s 2011 appointment, Facebook was already top of the heap, but the SFPD didn’t even have email. Suhr established email — “It took a signature,” he quipped — but kept going, handing smartphones to all officers and connecting them to criminal-justice databases that allow real-time research in investigations. Now, instead of being last in tech, the SFPD was first in California.

(The phones aren’t always for finding perps. Once an officer responded to a blocking-driveway tow call. The officer ran the plates and saw the vehicle registered next door. He knocked on the owner’s door. It was a genuine mistake; car moved, tow avoided.)

Community policing

As for his much-publicized community policing efforts, Suhr hates it. Not the work, but the term itself. “It’s just policing,” he stressed. “It’s just people.”

His marching orders: “Do more talking.” As a result, he said with a grin, officers are “becoming more and more charming.” The public is responding. Now chats with neighborhood people yield bonds, yield trust, and sometimes yield information relevant to cases.

Suhr also has worked to break down barriers among expert disciplines.  Likewise, he has distributed the force’s motorcycles and dirt bikes from the Hall of Justice to the areas where they are most needed, like Golden Gate Park.

Stay in school, stay out of prison

A key way to reduce crime, Suhr said, is to get kids to stay in school, high school in particular. Engaging youth is a primary focus of his and one that he extends to the force. He expects his officers to spend time as adult mentors to kids in boys and girls clubs. He cites a strong statistical correlation between crime and high-school dropout rates.

Suhr noted that since the state began to move inmates from state to local facilities — from where many are released into communities — property crimes are up 20 percent. But thieves have moved into the 21st century as well.

“Open air street narcotics are way down because the bad guys are stealing cell phones,” he said. A stolen phone can be worth $200 cash. Phone theft now makes up 2/3 of robberies. The SFPD has been lobbying, with other groups, to provide a “brick” button, making a stolen phone useless, forever, once reported stolen. The carriers are resisting this.

Walking on the streets of San Francisco

There have already been four pedestrian deaths this year. It is February.

“It’s a super crowded city,” Suhr said. The City has gained 125,000 residents in 20 years and 96 percent more bicycles since 2000, many of whom are checking Facebook on the street.

“Inattention is a big problem,” Suhr said, both for drivers and pedestrians. As kids, we were taught to look both ways — and we don’t. California law gives pedestrians the right of way in nearly all circumstances. To those who see this as carte blanche for crossing anywhere at any time, Suhr cautions: “You might be right, but you could be dead right.”

Sleeping on the streets of San Francisco

The last comprehensive census of the homeless was ten years ago and counted 6,500 homeless. Since then, the City has housed 10,000 people and given another willing 8,000 the transportation costs to return them home. In the last census, we still had 6,500.

Despite helping 18,000 people, Suhr said, the headlines blared: “City does nothing on homelessness.” But it’s no wonder critics think the City is doing nothing, he said, looking grimly at the top-line number.

Making the future brighter

“You’re going to see a lot more officers walking around,” Suhr said. “Technology is getting better.” Improved technology, for instance, has helped the department to clear more homicide cases this year than have occurred. Officers can search case files and look up license plate numbers from their smartphones. Suhr said phones are an officer’s best friend — not only the officer’s own phone, but also the one that a suspect was carrying.

Suhr was encouraged by the number of young officers who want to live and work in San Francisco. Having local officers is important, he said. “The best police officers anywhere have to have some skin in the game.” On the other hand, he noted that having non-local officers isn’t a real security risk for the City, provided staffing is done intelligently.

Call me, definitely

Don’t be concerned about “bothering” us with calls, Suhr said. It’s the department’s job. “We’re never too busy to take a phone call.”

At the meeting, Suhr took specific concerns from the membership, wrote them down, and promised to have them investigated.

The room nodded its belief.

The City Democratic Club thanks SFPD Chief Greg Suhr for making the time to speak to us.


Thursday 2/20: SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, Chancellor Hotel, 7:30pm

February speaker: Chief Greg Suhr

The club is honored to welcome SFPD Chief Greg Suhr as speaker on Thursday 2/20.

When: Thursday, February 20, 7:30pm
Where: Chancellor Hotel, Clipper Room (433 Powell St. between Sutter and Post)
How: Adjacent Muni lines: 3, 8X, 38, 30, 45, cable cars. The Powell Street BART/Muni station is a 10-15 minute walk away, as are Market and Mission street lines.

Mayor Lee appointed Greg Suhr as Chief in 2011. During his tenure, crime has dropped in the City. Chief Suhr has a strong focus on community policing; another of his key efforts is to create a 6th Street Substation in Central Market.

Suhr joined the SFPD in 1981 as a patrol officer at Tenderloin Station. He later became Captain for Bayview and Mission stations as well as Deputy Chief of Field Operations. His many other roles have included leadership in the Narcotics Division and the SFPUC.

Chief Suhr has worked to engage San Francisco’s youth, starting sports programs in both the Mission and the Bayview to promote community outreach and to reduce and prevent gang violence. He also helped implement Safe Corridor, a Mission program to reduce violence and gang activity. He serves on the board of the Boys and Girls Club of SF and the Bayview YMCA.

Chief Suhr is a graduate of USF and has a certificate in the Counter-Terrorism Executive Program from the University of Southern California.

2014 Executive Board nomination and voting

The club’s 2014 Executive Board will be elected in April. The board currently consists of a President, two Vice Presidents, Recording Secretary, Corresponding Secretary and Treasurer, as well as members-at-large. The bylaws also provide for a Parliamentarian, which currently is not assigned.
At the February meeting, the current board will propose a slate for 2014 and strongly encourages nominations from the membership. Only current, paid members for 2014 may nominate, stand for office, or vote in the officer election.

Renew now to make sure the 2014 Executive Board reflects your views.

March dark, April meeting

There will be no meeting in March. Stay tuned for April programming, which will include board elections.

Retain eligibility to vote: Join or renew for 2014

Renew now to make sure your voice is heard for election endorsements and board composition. Regular dues are still $35, discounted to $15 for students and seniors.

To be eligible to vote in an endorsement meeting:

  • Members in 2012 or 2013 must renew at or before the endorsement meeting.
  • New members must join at least 28 days before the endorsement meeting. For June primary endorsements, the new-member cutoff is estimated at March 20 but is subject to change until the meeting date is set.

To vote or nominate for the 2014 Executive Board, or to stand for office, dues must be current. The 28-day rule does not apply for board elections.

Regular dues can be paid securely using the PayPal button in the sidebar. Or send checks to us at 621 LaSalle Ave., San Francisco, 94124. We’re unable to accept cash through the mail.

November 2013 Endorsements

Friday, September 20, 2013 – Club members voted yesterday to endorse Propositions A and D, and Katy Tang, Carmen Chu and Dennis Herrera for local offices.

Propositions B and C are No Endorsement.

Local Offices

Katy Tang for Supervisor, District 4.
Carmen Chu for Assessor-Recorder.
Dennis Herrera for City Attorney.

Due to a typographical error, the Treasurer race was omitted from the club ballot. José Cisneros is running unopposed in this race. The club has no position on this office because of the error.


Yes on A, Retiree Health Care Trust Fund.
No endorsement on B, 8 Washington – Initiative.
No endorsement on C, 8 Washington – Referendum.
Yes on D, Prescription Drug Purchasing.

“No endorsement” means that neither Yes nor No reached the 60% threshold required to endorse. The club’s position is to not support either side on Propositions B and C.

Thank you!

The club extends a warm thank-you to our presenters from the Proposition B and C campaigns and to the membership for its careful consideration and its votes.

Key dates

Mark your calendar for these key dates and deadlines:


October 7: Early voting begins at City Hall
October 21: Last day to register to vote. City voter registration info on sfgov.org
October 29: Last day to request a mail ballot
November 2-5: Mail ballots can be dropped off at curbside collection stations at City Hall
November 5: Election Day. Polls open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Next Up
Projections for upcoming club meetings:

November: After-work happy hour, most likely the 21st (third Thursday).
December: Holiday party.

2014: We’re lining up great speakers for the spring. Stay tuned.