A Conversation with San Francisco’s Top Cop

Written by Monica Villavicencio
Greg Suhr ’88Photo by Jeremy Snyder ’16.

“I tell my cops on the very first day that if they think it’s all about this uniform or gun, they joined the wrong police department,” says Police Chief Greg Suhr ’88. 

That’s one of many things he wants you to understand about the SFPD and his experience policing the city he loves.

Greg Suhr is at the height of his career. He manages more than 1,700 officers in one of the nation’s most diverse cities, and violent crime has dropped 20 percent since Mayor Ed Lee appointed him in 2011. He’s also the highest paid police chief in the country.

Occasionally, he’s has had some movie-worthy moments: He hunted “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez, the serial killer and rapist who terrorized California in the mid-1980s; he once found $1.4 million in cash stuffed in duffel bags during a drug bust; and he helped “Batkid” Miles Scott save both the city and a damsel-in-distress, as millions watched online.

SFPB by the Numbers

But it’s day-to-day policing that gives Suhr his greatest satisfaction. He worked his way to the top; from patrolling the Tenderloin on the graveyard shift to serving as captain at both the Bayview and Mission stations. It’s a job he’s loved for 33 years.

For our interview, Chief Suhr invited USF Magazine to his office in San Francisco’s Hall of Justice.

What’s the biggest misconception San Franciscans have about police officers?

A lot of people think our job is just enforcement—using force, arresting people, giving people tickets. That’s certainly part of it, but our job is to help people. I tell my cops on the very first day that if they think it’s all about this uniform or the gun, they joined the wrong police department.

We’ve instituted a requirement that while they’re in the academy, officers have to spend four hours of work time and four hours of their own time a month volunteering at a Boys & Girls Club, Bayview YMCA, or some other youth organization—nothing to do with policing. 

I need them to connect with young people, and not just as police officers, so that we can see generational change with regard to violence. Ninety-four percent of the homicide victims under 25 didn’t graduate from high school. Over 80 percent of the prison population didn’t graduate from high school. And so we’re focusing on jobs and making youth college ready. We’ve helped get more than 300 summer jobs for kids to try to get young people engaged, wanting that every other Tuesday paycheck, and feeling valuable. Most people wouldn’t think any of this is base police work, but I think it’s all police work.

You’ve been in the department for more than 30 years. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the officers?

I’ve seen a lot of generational change. When I came in, most of the bosses were Vietnam War veteran types. We barely had computers. There were no cell phones. Now you still have a group that’s resisting smartphones but can connect with people and get information unbelievably well. 

And then there’s the generation that would rather text than talk. The thing is, if you can’t talk to people, you just can’t get the job done. If you can’t make that personal connection to develop an informant or to make a witness or a victim feel comfortable that you’ll protect them, they won’t tell you what happened and you won’t have information to put into the computer to figure things out. 

Greg Suhr Quote

So my challenge is to get the best of both—to get some guys to use technology and other folks to learn how to talk to people.  We need to be able to do both.

How did your USF education prepare you to be police chief?

I think the best thing about a Jesuit education is it teaches you early on that it’s not about you. Even if you get to be chief of police, it’s not about you. Knowing that grounds you. My buddies and I give ourselves regular humility 

pills so that no one gets too big for themselves. So I think the best thing about a Jesuit education is the message of service to others. It really sunk in with me.

With new restrictions on signature street parties like Bay to Breakers and the Folsom Street Fair, do you think the city is losing its edge?

As a San Franciscan and as a police officer, I would say no.

The only restriction that’s been placed on Bay to Breakers is no alcohol, and that’s because it got to be so problematic. A couple of years ago there were some pretty ugly sexual assaults and a lot of public urination up and down the route. It just got out of hand. So, as has happened with many events in San Francisco over the years, we reached a tipping point. We’re the most tolerant city in the world until we can’t tolerate it anymore. There’s also a new nudity ban, but even with the nudity ban, there are exceptions for certain events, like the Folsom Street Fair.

I don’t want anyone’s constitutional rights and civil liberties getting infringed, but I have no patience for violent crime.

In February, one former and five current officers were indicted for theft, extortion, and drug dealing. Although the alleged crimes weren’t committed under your watch, you’re dealing with the charges. What was going through your mind when you found out?

Having five sitting San Francisco police officers standing accused of federal offenses is certainly not good under any circumstances, so my heart goes out to them and their families because of the uncertainty of being innocent until proven guilty, when certain people would paint you guilty at the mere accusation because you’re a police officer.

SFPD Top Crimes

What I was really upset about was that I knew what was going to come next. I was here when Rodney King happened. [L.A. police were acquitted of beating King, an African-American construction worker, sparking deadly race riots in 1992.] San Francisco didn’t have anything to do with it, and yet probably for a year, if not years after that, every time you touched somebody when making an arrest, there were unseemly allegations and complaints. It made it really hard on everybody. 

Here we have a police department that’s well received by the community, and this just knocks you on your heels. I know what the officers out in the street who aren’t accused will have to contend with.

Do you think San Francisco residents mistrust the police?

I think in some neighborhoods people see the police as I did as a child, like that Norman Rockwell picture at the soda fountain. They’re who you run to for comfort and security, and they’re going to be honest and forthright and caring and compassionate. That’s how I want my cops to be. 

But having been a captain in the Mission and Bayview, I can tell you that there are neighborhoods in which people’s only experience with the police has been when there was a big fight or when something bad happened. And I think a lot of neighborhoods have seen the police as the invading army. We came in when it was bad, and then we left again. 

So my message to my cops is to take an extra three to five minutes to explain to whoever why you did what you did. Sometimes, at the time folks don’t want to hear it, but I think that after all is said and done and time passes, most people will reflect back and appreciate the conversation. They still may not like the action taken, but I believe they deserve the explanation. If we would do that 100 percent of the time, some of that mistrust would go away.

Greg Suhr and BatkidBATKID SAVES THE CITY: Police Chief Greg Suhr prerecorded a series of messages for Batkid, 5-year-old Miles Scott, guiding the
pint-sized superhero through the city, helping him stop a bank robber, and saving a damsel-in-distress. The event was organized
by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Scott is in remission from leukemia. Photo by Mike Koozmin.

What’s the most pressing challenge the police department faces?

When I was a kid, the population of San Francisco was in the high 600,000s to low 700,000s. Now we have more than 825,000 people. There are twice as many bicycles on the street as there were in 2007. There’s more construction. And everybody’s preoccupied with their phone—GPS on the windshield or texting while driving, biking, and walking. So everybody’s distracted, and everybody’s in a hurry. 

People think the police department’s job is suppressing violent crime and seizing guns, but we’re also responsible for traffic control and making sure everyone on the street is civil to everyone else. And while violent crime is down 20 percent and we’ve hit a 30-year low for homicides, it’s a challenge to manage traffic, pedestrians, and bicycles on the street. It’s our responsibility to make people feel safe. 

The SFPD is the 11th largest police department in the country, and yet, you’re the nation’s highest paid police chief. Why is that?

Well, the salary was set when I got the job. San Francisco is obviously a very expensive city, but it is a substantial salary. I do put in a lot of time, a lot of hours. I try to earn it.

What would you have been if you weren’t a police officer?

Actually, I was all set to go to law school. My family has a lot of lawyers, and one of my uncles went to the USF School of Law. I wanted to be an attorney in criminal court. To be honest, I think I would’ve been a defense attorney at the time because of my leanings before I became a cop. Then, after I joined the police department, I wanted to be a prosecutor. And then I got promoted, and I stayed because I just loved being a police officer.

Who is your favorite TV or movie cop?

It was all about Harry Callahan when we were growing up. Dirty Harry is the coolest. He put the SFPD on the map. He solved everything. He was just that guy. 

But as far as my favorite cop when I watch TV, I have to go with Barney Miller. I think Barney Miller is way more how it is in station houses. Cops are lighthearted. We’re funny. We’re thick skinned. And we have great relationships with some of the folks that we deal with all of the time. It’s funny, when I see guys that I arrested in my early days as a cop, we talk about how it was back in the day. 

Police Chiefs Sidebar jpeg

I think most police shows try to be dramatic. It’s not all action and violence. There’s a lot of downtime in police work where it’s about engaging people and building relationships. 

Can you share one of your favorite memories from your time at USF?

It’s probably going to be the people. The current book store used to be called the Fog and Grog, and they had beer on campus back in the day. I remember long, long study sessions with my friend John Bacchini ’83 who recently passed away from cancer, at the Fog and Grog. I made some lifelong friends. The thing about San Francisco and USF is that it’s all about relationships. It’s not always what you know. Many, many times it’s who you know. 

What’s next?

I don’t have a plan. It took 30 years to get to here, and I know that if you want your initiatives to stick, you have to stay. So for the foreseeable future, I hope I get to stay the chief of police. 

I’d like to continue my focus on youth. If we can get a couple of generations of young people to know how important it is to graduate from high school, 10 to 15 years from now, we could see a decidedly different southeast sector—with all these unbelievably talented kids that didn’t have opportunities before thriving. And then it’ll be like any other neighborhood when it comes to being safe.

I hope the next chief of police comes from inside the San Francisco Police Department because if that happens, then it means that the people don’t want to lose the momentum that we have going, that they think I have us going in the right direction.

Suhr was scheduled to deliver the commencement address to USF School of Management graduates on May 17, sharing advice and insights from his work leading the SFPD.




    « Back