The San Francisco Historical Society has named former San Francisco Chief of Police Greg Suhr to its advisory board. The announcement was included in its October-December 2020 newsletter, alongside a historical bio for Suhr that deliberately omitted his contentious role as Chief of Police (2011-2016), a period of crisis over the killings by police of people of color, and scandal stemming from a series of racist, misogynist, homophobic and violent text messages that revealed the internal culture of the department. He left SFPD under the public clamor of “Fire Chief Suhr!”
In May 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic over 10,000 people marched to the cry of Black Lives Matter and the demand to Defund SFPD. Completely out of touch with the historic moment, the SFHS chose to promote Greg Suhr into a position of influence for recording the City’s history. By naming Suhr an advisor and providing an uncritical biography, the SFHS provides a perfect example of how historical records are created for and by those in power. The SFHS has long been an irrelevant institution to the people of color of this City because it unabashedly favors the aggrandizement of those who have run and owned the City of San Francisco, while burying their fraught involvement in class conflict and racial genocide and oppression.
In honor of the Indigenous, Black, People of Color harmed and murdered by those in power on stolen Ohlone land, Justice for Luis provides the missing chapters of Greg Suhr’s tenure as Chief of the San Francisco Police Department.
Greg Suhr: The biography that the SFHS ommitted
In 2011, Mayor Ed Lee chose Greg Suhr as Police Chief of San Francisco. Suhr was an insider cop bred in the culture of the “Good Old Boys’ Club” that privileges and protects a white supremacist culture. Lee chose him despite the scandals that plagued his prior history as part of San Francisco Police Department’s command staff.
This included the notorious Fajitagate scandal in 2003, when Suhr, then deputy chief, alongside other top brass were charged of conspiracy to obstruct justice for covering up an incident in which three off-duty officers were accused of beating up two men over a bag of fajitas. A judge later dismissed the charges of obstruction brought by then-District Attorney Terrence Hallinan for lack of evidence. Chief Fong reassigned Suhr to the Public Utilities Commission, where he befriended Ed Lee, chief administrative officer at the time.
Suhr again clashed with Fong when in 2009, he failed to report a domestic violence case involving a friend. Chief Fong reprimanded him, again, and SFPD lawyer Kelly O’Haire recommended he be fired, but ultimately he was demoted to captain and served only a five-day suspension. After Fong resigned in 2009, she was replaced by George Gascón—an outsider who had built a 30-year career within Los Angeles and Mesa police departments before coming to San Francisco. It was Gascón who rescued Suhr from “career Siberia” at the PUC. After Gascón was appointed as District Attorney in 2011 to succeed Kamala Harris, then interim mayor Ed Lee appointed Suhr as chief of police.
Chief Suhr had a five-year roller coaster ride in office, during which he remained aloof to problems brimming in the SFPD, including a racist text scandal and an epidemic of police killings of Black and Brown people. The trend of killing people of color was particularly acute in the two-year period between 2014 and 2016, when nine out of the 12 people killed by police were Latino and Black. Those murdered by SFPD under Suhr’s watched included Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez-Lopez, Mario Woods, Luis Góngora Pat and Jessica Williams.
At the peak of Suhr’s crisis as chief in early May 2016, following the City’s longest hunger strike on record and mass protests in the street that led to the taking of City Hall by hundreds of protesters under the rallying cry of “Fire Chief Suhr!”, he insisted he was the reformer that the city needed. But it was evident to all that Suhr was there to protect the status quo, and the interests of the powerful Police Officer’s Association especially when it came to policy changes that would increase police accountability.
When later that same month, SFPD officers committed their 18th homicide since the start of Suhr’s term in office, the mudslide of scandal threatened to take Mayor Lee under as well, and the mayor accepted Suhr’s resignation.
Suhr’s history as Chief of Police in San Francisco will be remembered as a return to a throw-back police force that the city’s Black and Brown communities have tried to overcome for decades. Despite cyclical reform efforts, SFPD cannot contain the scandals that ooze out of its anachronistic, bigoted, corrupt, violent culture that is bureaucratically engrained and legally cushioned against accountability.
This post was based on a “Special Report: Ed Lee’s police legacy” by Adriana Camarena, March 11, 2018 published in 48 Hills. Please refer to the article for further details, and there are so many more details on racism and corruption in SFPD.
For more information on policing history, also check out our page titled The People’s Police Observatory!