New coach, new approach

Pub date October 13, 2009

The chief was running late. As a group of Guardian reporters filed into his modest, comfortable conference room on the fifth floor of the Hall of Justice, an aide told us that Police Chief George Gascón was still meeting with Mayor Gavin Newsom at City Hall, and that we’d all have to cool our heels for a while.

While we were waiting, Michelangelo Apodaca, a public affairs officer in the chief’s office (he called himself an “image strategist”) stressed the recent sea change at SFPD, labeling it “new coach, new approach.” (It appears, however, that the mayor is still pushing his so-called “quality of life” agenda. “I just came from a meeting where I got beat up for not doing enough about public drinking and public disorder,” the chief belatedly told us.)

But once we got into the interview, Gascón was friendly, candid, thoughtful, and accommodating, and spent nearly an hour discussing his philosophy of law enforcement, his vision for San Francisco, and his positions on some tricky and divisive problems.

We left with the impression that the new chief, although hardly in agreement with us on a number of issues, is far more open than his predecessor, willing to shake things up in the moribund department — and sometimes, interested in discussion and compromise on progressive concerns.

“My philosophy of policing is very heavy in community involvement, very transparent,” Gascón told us.

Gascón said he’s moving quickly on implementing many of the items that he’s promised, such as creating a COMPSTAT (computerized crime and staffing statistics) system that will be accessible to the public. He plans to launch it Oct. 21.

And beyond the technology, he seems interested in shifting the top-down structure of the department. “I said that we would reorganize the department in certain levels and do certain levels of decentralization to increase resources at the neighborhood level so that we actually have people within the police department who have greater ownership of neighborhood issues,” he said. “And we’re going to do that in November. I stated that we would have community police advisory boards at each of the stations, and those basically will be neighborhood-level people, anywhere from 10 to 20, for each station. We’ll work with our local captains on neighborhood-related issues.”

He said that improving how the department does community policing will have a two-fold impact. “One is, the cops get to understand better what the community really wants. The other is that the community gets to understand better what the resources really are.

“Everybody wants a foot-beat cop,” he continued. “Everybody wants a fixed-post cop. Everybody wants a cop in every bus. If we had 10,000 people, then perhaps we could fulfill all those wishes. The reality is that we don’t.”



But the most tangible impact of Gascón’s tenure so far has been his crackdowns on drug-related activity in the Tenderloin, where more than 300 people at a time have been swept up in sting operations, and on marijuana-growing operations in the Sunset District, where 36 locations were raided (four of which Gascón said were discovered to be “legitimate” medical marijuana growers who had their crops returned by police).

The arrest surge generated a lot of positive press — but also is costing the city a bundle. Sheriff Michael Hennessey, who runs the county jail, told us that he had to reopen several jail housing units that had been slated to close to meet his budget for the current fiscal year. He said the average daily jail population in July was 1,861, but that it has risen to 2,146 in September, a 285 inmate increase.

If it stays at this level, Hennessey estimates that he’ll need up to $3.5 million in additional annual funding to house the larger population, as he indicated in a letter that he wrote to the Board of Supervisors last month, letting them know that he will probably need a supplemental budget appropriate this year.

When we asked Gascón whether affected city agencies — including the Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney’s Office, and Public Defender’s Office — should increase their budgets to deal with the SFPD’s new approach, he said they should.

There’s a touch of the corporate manager about Gascón. When we challenged him to defend the efficacy of the crackdowns, Gascón pulled out a pen and paper and started drawing a Venn diagram, with its three overlapping circles. He explained that many criminal justice studies have shown that about 10 percent of criminal suspects commit about 55 percent of the crime, that 10 percent of crime victims are the targets of about 40 percent of crimes, and that crime is often concentrated in certain geographic areas.

By concentrating on the overlap of these realms, Gascón said police can have a major impact on crime in the city. Although Gascón admits that “police can never arrest themselves out of social problem,” he also said “there are people who do need to be arrested … Most of the arrests are for serious felonies.”

It’s a potentially tricky approach — in essence, Gascón is saying that when you mix some people and some places (in this case, mostly people of color and mostly poor neighborhoods) you create crime zones. The difference between that and racial profiling is, potentially, a matter of degree.

But Gascón defended the surge in arrests over the last two months as targeting those who need to be arrested and, just as important, sending a message to the greater Bay Area that San Francisco is no longer a place where open-air drug dealing, fencing stolen goods, and other visible crimes will be tolerated.

“We need to adjust the DNA of the region,” he said.

And while Gascón said the arrest surge might not be sustained indefinitely, he also frankly said that the city will probably need to spend more money on criminal justice going forward. In other realms of the recent crackdown, such as the police sweeps of Dolores Park and other parks ticketing those drinking alcohol, Gascón said that was more of a balancing act that will involve ongoing community input and weighing concerns on both sides of the issue.

It was when we pushed for the SFPD to ease up busting people in the parks who were drinking but not causing other problems that Gascón told us that the mayor had a different opinion and had been chiding his new chief to be tougher on public drinking.

In light of several recent shootings by SFPD officers of mentally ill suspects, we asked Gascón whether he’s satisfied with how the department and its personnel handle such cases. He didn’t exactly admit any problems (saying only that “there’s always room for improvement”) but said he was concerned enough to create a task force to investigate the issue last month, headed by Deputy Chief Morris Tabak.

When we asked if we can see the report on the 90-day review, Gascón didn’t hesitate in answering yes, “the report will be public.”



If Gascón follows through with his promises, internal discipline — one of the worst problems facing the department — could get a dramatic overhaul. The new chief wants to clear up a serious backlog of discipline cases, possibly by reducing the penalties — but claims to be willing to take a much tougher stand on the serious problem cases.

In fact, Gascón said he wants the authority to fire cops — that power now rests entirely with the Police Commission — and said there are eight to 10 police officers on the San Francisco force who should be fired, now, for their past record of bad behavior. That would be a radical change — in the past 20 years, fewer than five officers have ever been fired for misconduct, despite the fact that the city has paid out millions in legal settlements in police-abuse cases.

Gascón also discussed controversial legislation by Sup. David Campos that would require due process before undocumented immigrant youths arrested by the SFPD are turned over to federal immigration authorities, an amendment to the sanctuary city policy that was weakened by Newsom.

Just days after arrived in town, Gascón had made comments to the San Francisco Chronicle supporting Newsom’s position and saying that under Campos’ legislation, “drug or even violent offenders could be released by judges on reduced charges in lieu of reporting them for possible deportation.”

But in the interview with us, while not backing away from his previous statement, Gascón seemed to take a more nuanced position that pointed toward the possibility of compromise. He reminded us that he’d spent time in Mesa, Ariz., tangling with a county sheriff, Joe Arpaio, who has gone far beyond any reasonable standard in trying to arrest and deport undocumented residents. He also told us that he doesn’t think the cops, by themselves, should decide who gets turned over the feds for deportation.

That alone is a significant step — and suggests that Gascón could turn out to be one of Newsom’s best hires.



SFBG Are you still concerned about waiting for the courts to determine a suspect’s guilt before turning him over to the feds? Gascón Yes, it’s very much a concern. And by the way, I fully understand the concerns Sup. David Campos brings to the table.

I have the benefit of being on the other side also, where you have police agencies aggressively engaged in immigration enforcement, where people that frankly were not engaged in any criminal activity other than being here without authority — which sometimes, by the way, is not criminal. In fact, depending on whose numbers you listen to, anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of people who are here without authority in this country have not committed a criminal violation; they have committed an administrative violation.

And people get deported. I have seen very young people, people that basically came to this country when they were three, four years old, they are actually staying clean, they are going to school, and they get stopped for a traffic violation at age 17 or 18, and now all of a sudden they are getting deported to a country where they really have no roots at all. I have seen that, and I’m very sensitive to that.

On the other hand, I think it’s important also to recognize that in any group, whether you were here legally or not legally, whether you were born here or not, whether you are green, red, or brown, there are people that for a variety of reasons aren’t willing to live by the social norms we all need to live by to be able to have a peaceful environment.

I think that allowing the process to go all the way to the point where a judge decides whether to allow this to continue … is probably too far down the food chain for my comfort level. On the other hand, I would not want to have police officers on the streets stopping people and trying to assess whether they are here legally or not.

So I think we need to find somewhere down the middle, that if person is arrested, there is a non-law enforcement review. And quite frankly, probably the best person would be the D.A. They determine whether they have a prosecutable case or not. If it’s prosecutable case and a predictable offense that requires reporting, then that would be a good time where a flag could go up.

SFBG But that’s not the process right now.  Gascón No, the process now is triggered by the Probation Department, which is a law enforcement entity. So I think we have a process where law enforcement is making a decision and Sup. Campos is looking at a process of adjudication.

SFBG It sounds as if you agree substantially with Sup. David Campos. Is there room for compromise? 

Gascón I’m hoping there is room for compromise, that is something we’re trying to work with.

Sarah Phelan and Rebecca Bowe contributed to this report.