The next police chief

Pub date November 21, 2006
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Heather Fong is not a popular police chief these days. Nine of the 11 supervisors just rejected her proposal for staffing foot patrols and insisted on one of their own — with some of the supes openly saying they had no faith in her management of the department. And inside her own department, the knives are out — the Police Officers Association (POA), which has never liked having a chief who wasn’t part of the old guard, is practically gleeful at the idea that she may be ousted, and several senior commanders are said to be moving not-so-quietly behind the scenes to try to get her job.
Mayor Gavin Newsom has given no official indication that he’s preparing to fire her (although the rumors were swirling a week ago) and neither has the Police Commission, which by law has the final say. But Fong will have put in 30 years in the department this June, making her eligible for a very sweet retirement package. It’s safe to say that San Francisco will probably be looking for a new police chief within the next 12 months.
So it’s not too early for the mayor and the commissioners to make a few very clear statements about what they expect from the next person to lead the deeply troubled department. At the very least, there has to be a national search — and we’d argue that the next chief absolutely has to come from outside the department. The sooner that message gets out, the sooner all this ugly backstabbing and internal political maneuvering will end.
San Francisco has a tradition of bringing chiefs up from the ranks; it’s almost unheard of to do anything else. The late mayor George Moscone brought in an outsider, Charles Gain, who took a few steps to make the department more accountable and less intimidating and got a furious backlash from the troops. Frank Jordan, in the sort of bizarre backroom political move that characterized much of his mayoralty, handed the job to former sheriff and supervisor Dick Hongisto — who only lasted a few months.
Other than that, it’s been business as usual — one of the senior commanders gets picked by the mayor, and the commission goes along and rubber-stamps that decision.
But this department is desperately in need of fresh blood, of an outsider with a new perspective on the situation — and more important, no previous political baggage. Right now, the POA practically runs the department, effectively vetoing all sorts of reform efforts, and any chief who defies the powerful union is crippled. The disciplinary process is a mess — cops who would have been fired without a second’s thought in most jurisdictions walk away from serious offenses with modest suspensions and are back out on the streets. Department brass treat civilian oversight with open hostility — and do so with no fear of repercussions.
The crime rate, particularly the homicide rate, continues at unacceptable levels. And as we saw with the foot patrols, nobody at police headquarters is willing to step up and try anything creative or new.
Fong, for all her flaws, has tried somewhat to accept reforms in the department and is far better than anyone else on her senior command staff. In fact, the best argument for keeping her around is that nobody who’s likely to replace her is any better. But that’s not any way to run a big-city police department.
If Fong decides to leave or the commissioners decide that she can no longer handle the job, the city needs to immediately start looking for someone who has a proven track record of accepting civilian oversight, welcoming reform, and standing up to old-school police union tactics. That, almost by definition, means an outsider. SFBG