Chief Greg Suhr at a town hall meeting for Luis Gongora. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

Among those who work within and around the San Francisco Police Department, several say Police Chief Greg Suhr — whom five hunger strikers camped out at Mission Station want to unseat — is trying to retrain officers and reduce the use of deadly force. But they agree that more needs to be done, and one of the experts involved in retraining was sharply critical of the Luis Gongora shooting, which occurred after the retraining.  

Message Received

“I think that he’s in a position where he has got to act and he’s gotta do something more than what he’s doing now. And I think he realizes that,” said Public Defender Jeff Adachi. “He’s got to reach the point where he’s got to be able to tell people, ‘Mario Woods’ shooting never should have happened.’ And from my talks with him, I think he believes that – I think if he was there and he got called to the scene, he’d be like, ‘No! Don’t do that!’ ”

David Elliott Lewis, who has been working full-time to make officers de-escalate situations and roll back the use of force, said he has been training police officers in crisis intervention practices for two years now. He is also the secretary of the Mental Health Board at City College of San Francisco as well as a board member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Lewis noted that Suhr has issued bulletins regarding the use of deadly force directing officers not to fire on a suspect with a knife if nobody else is in immediate danger.

But in the most recent police shooting, part of what sparked the hunger strike at Mission Station calling for Suhr’s resignation, Lewis’ strictly personal opinion is that Gongora’s shooting was “a total disaster.”

“No, that’s not what we train, and as a trainer I’m disheartened and depressed and dispirited that this happened. I’d like to believe that this is a rare exception,” Lewis said. “Every day there’s about 30 CIT [Crisis Intervention Team] calls that people rapidly talk down. Nobody gets hurt…if anything they get transported to the hospital if they meet 5150 [temporary psychiatric hold] criteria.”

Moreover, he said, in the twice-annual firearm recertification that is mandatory for every police officer, Suhr has made changes. Officers aren’t just tested for whether they can hit a target 80 percent of the time, but get reminders about situations where de-escalation might be more appropriate than force. Their targets, too, have changed.

“[Before], when the target turned, every time, they had to fire. Now, when the target turns, they have to make a decision whether the person in the image is a threat or not. They’ve never had to do that before,” Lewis said. “Chief Suhr came up with that under a lot of pressure.”

According to Lewis, the chief has also sought to eliminate so-called sympathetic fire, when officers open fire after their partners begin shooting. Officers are now barred from firing at a suspect unless they themselves are in danger.

Controversy over the conduct of police officers and their chief has inspired a two-week hunger strike at the Mission District police station.

The demand to fire Suhr developed out of protests and activism sparked by four shootings of men of color at the hands of San Francisco police officers in the past two years. Although the officers who shot Alex Nieto did face a civil trial and were exonerated, the District Attorney has not brought criminal charges in any of the shooting cases.

Two separate investigations into officers’ misconduct have also revealed exchanges of text messages between officers that use racist and homophobic language.

Arrest statistics paint a grim picture of the disproportionate enforcement of the law against people of color. Last year, a study showed that black people were more than seven times as likely to be arrested as white people in 2013, a disparity that had only widened in San Francisco as it narrowed elsewhere.

For years, activists have organized marches, written letters, commented at public meetings, held vigils, and organized even more marches. They wanted to have Suhr fired, the officers involved in the shootings charged with murder, and an independent investigation mounted into the police department’s practices.

They continue to feel largely ignored and disenfranchised by officials, saying that at town hall meetings a grave-faced Suhr listens, but responds with boilerplate language.

But Lewis noted that some police practices have already started to change.

“The new rule is you can only fire twice and then you have to re-assess. I noticed that Luis Gongora [was] only hit seven times. In the old system, he would have been hit 20 times or more. But the fact that seven rounds were fired instead of 20 suggests that at least that rule has had some effect.”

But Gongora was still killed.

Imperfect System

Lewis said some 100 officers, the entire body of specialist and tactical officers, underwent Crisis Intervention Training in April. So far, more than 400 officers have received the training.

Crisis Intervention Training is a 40-hour intensive program involving role-play scenarios and instruction from experts in urgent care, the Public Defender’s Office, behavioral health court, and verbal de-escalation.

“I’m a consumer with my own experiences with mental health challenges about how to relate to people like me,” Lewis said. More than a decade ago, the death of his parents, a divorce and sudden bankruptcy sent him into severe depression and triggered anxiety disorders, which eventually landed him on the streets.  

The training boils down to three main tenets: Officers who encounter someone in crisis should create distance, time, and rapport. Approach slowly. Keep enough of a distance from a knife-wielding person that they are less likely to become a threat. Talk with the person, but wait for responses, and use silence effectively.

Had officers followed their Crisis Intervention Training in the encounter with Gongora, Lewis said, they would have established a perimeter around him, approached slowly, and started a conversation by speaking with the suspect and waiting for a response – not by firing bean-bag rounds.

Still, for every Gongora, there are dozens of other individuals who encounter officers and whose names are never made public, because nothing happens.

“Every day there’s about 30 CIT calls that people rapidly talk down,” Lewis said. “Success stories where police do successfully de-escalate don’t seem to be as newsworthy.”

Challenges Ahead

Discussing an association test that searches for implicit biases, Adachi is the first to admit that most will find they have them.

“I took the test myself and saw that, yes, I have biases,” he said at a forum on police accountability on Tuesday night – one in which Suhr had been expected to participate, but was absent due to “security concerns.”

In the police department, Adachi said, the problem is culture. He refuses to believe the racist text message scandals were isolated incidents.

“We are talking about a culture in the police department that allows racism to happen,” Adachi said, comparing it to the culture of early Nazi Germany. “A culture where officers feel free to not only engage in this kind of dialogue, but to act on it.”

An experiment with judges given identical cases with black or white mug shots attached, Adachi said, found that judges overwhelmingly gave tougher sentences and set higher bail for those with black mugshots – but that they would self-correct for that bias once it was pointed out and they were monitored. Still, the effect is short-lived.

“What the research shows is that it works, but you have to continually reinforce it. In other words it doesn’t last,” he said. “You constantly have to be reminded, and that’s why the training and the exercises.”

Adachi connected racism and implicit biases to a lack of empathy with unfamiliar groups of people, and suggested requiring police officers form relationships with the people in the communities that they police.

Crisis Intervention Training and the department’s use-of-force policies also have room to improve.

“We need to go beyond just training and fully operationalize,” he said. “We need a new use-of-force policy that’s being crafted now.”

The department’s current use-of-force policy, Adachi said, allows officers to apply force when they deem it reasonable. Critics want that language changed to using the minimal amount of force necessary – a change supported, but not finally adopted, at a Police Commission meeting on Wednesday night.

“Now the question is, ‘Can you use force?’ I can do it, so long as I establish that I am afraid,” Adachi said – whether that be 10 or 50 gunshots.

The shooting of Luis Gongora, Adachi said, was also within guidelines.

“Can they do that under the law? Yes. Should they do that? No! You don’t treat a human being like that,” he said.

At the scene of the hunger strike, at least one officer, Mission Station Captain Daniel Perea, seemed convinced of Suhr’s good intentions.

“I think the chief’s a good man, and he is actively involved in leading this police department in a direction…where we we have policies and procedures that the community is asking for,” Perea said. “He’s responsive to the community. The thing that I’ve heard the chief say over and over again is, ‘We’re here to help.’ And I think that he’s doing things for that reason. He’s a good man and he’s trying to do the right thing.”

But outside, the effort to remove the chief continues, with hunger strikers entering their third week without solid food.

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1 Comment

  1. Suhr’s heart is in the right place, but the best thing he can do for the city right now is to step down – that’s the only way to show that the city and the police department are treating this crisis with the seriousness it deserves. After he’s gone, the whole force will know that you change our you are out. Until he’s gone, the whole force knows the culture can stay the same and nobody’s job is on the line.

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