If Fong goes

Pub date November 21, 2006
WriterSarah Phelan

› news@sfbg.com If November has been a bad month for Mayor Gavin Newsom, it’s been worse for his police chief, Heather Fong. The entire battle over police foot patrols has made Fong look terrible. She started off saying that the department simply couldn’t afford to put more cops on the streets in high-crime areas because she didn’t have the troops to do it. She and the mayor fought hard to defeat the legislation. The bill passed anyway, effectively ordering her to do what she claimed she couldn’t do, and it was vetoed by Newsom. But as it seemed likely that the Board of Supervisors had the votes to override the veto, Fong came out with her own foot patrol plan, which wasn’t all that different from what the board had approved. Suddenly, she seemed to be saying that foot patrols really were possible. After the veto override she went in another direction, telling a TV interviewer that she wasn’t sure her captains were going to follow the law anyway. Police Commission member David Campos pushed her on those apparent flip-flops at the commission’s Nov. 15 meeting, and she bobbed and ducked like a wounded quail. In the meantime, at least one Newsom ally, Sup. Bevan Dufty, proclaimed that he had no faith in the chief, and numerous others on the board publicly decried her lack of leadership. Fong sat in the board chambers Nov. 14, looking visibly shaken, and listened to it all. And rumors started swirling that Newsom was ready to fire her. Not a good sign for the city’s first female top cop, who was already under fire for the skyrocketing murder rate and for failing to hold bad officers accountable for abuses of authority. But Fong has one thing going for her: some progressives think that the immediate alternatives are even worse. Campos, a proponent of foot patrols, told us he was critical of the chief’s reaction to the supervisors’ plan — a plan that the board only decided to implement after watching crime levels rise for three years straight and gaining unanimous backing from the Police Commission and significant support from a frustrated public. But he’s not so sure giving Fong the ax will help. “I understand the criticisms,” Campos told us, “but as a progressive, I’m worried what will happen to police reform if Fong is no longer there. Under her leadership we’ve seen a dramatic change in approach from that of her predecessors. There’s been less conflict, and her focus has been on how to get the job done without drama. She’s not a bomb thrower, and that’s been a real positive change.” The politics of the situation are complicated: sure, some progressives are furious at the chief — but a lot of the pressure to get rid of her is also coming from the police union and the old guard at the department. “Some of the people who are critical of her are those who also aren’t keen on reform and have tried to slow down the reform promises contained within Prop. H,” Campos explained. “To me, that raises my concern. I don’t want those people to succeed in their efforts. Their track record has not been good.” Sup. Tom Ammiano added, “You can change the chief, but that won’t address the real problems.” Commission member Theresa Sparks noted that “Chief Fong has brought a strong sense of integrity and a lot of administrative order to the department and made some changes of command staff. My only concern is the willingness of the rank and file to follow her leadership, given that she has such a different leadership style.” Sparks argued that whenever Fong leaves, the commission ought to go beyond the traditional practice of promoting from within. “There’s a number of qualified people within the department who certainly should apply,” she said, “but San Francisco might benefit from looking farther afield, much like Los Angeles did.” There will, no doubt, be tremendous pressure to hire from within the ranks. Dufty — who, to his credit, defied the mayor and voted to overturn the foot patrols veto — is a fan of Deputy Chief Greg Suhr. Yet Suhr was one of the so-called Fajitagate defendants charged with conspiracy, although the charges against him were dismissed in court. He was in command of 100 officers during an anarchist demonstration in the Mission District in July 2005 when patrol officer Peter Shields was overwhelmed by protesters and injured. (That was the demonstration that led to the jailing of journalist Josh Wolf — see Editor’s Notes, on the cover.) Suhr blamed a communications breakdown; Fong said that wasn’t possible. Suhr was exiled to a job with the SF Public Utilities Commission shortly afterward. Police reform activists don’t consider Suhr an ally, but Dufty called him “a very strong cop.” Even so, Dufty agreed that the department might benefit from outside leadership. “We’re at a stage where the balkanization of the department is at a level I’ve never seen,” he told us. “I’ve never thought that there should be a chief from the outside, but at this time I would consider it.” SFBG