The Outsider

George Gascon is S.F.'s first police chief in 30 years who wasn't homegrown — and he's promising big changes. Criminals and lazy cops, you have been warned.

Sparks said that the commission might seek changes in the city's administrative code, making it easier for Gascon to hire department outsiders to serve on his command staff. "I think it's his intent to bring in an outsider," she said.

"I believe San Francisco is a world-class city," Gascon said. "And San Francisco has no reason to have the level of crime it has. It has all the tools to be the safest city in America, and I'm going to do everything I can to make that a truism."


While Gascon was ruthlessly cleaning house in Mesa, the incompetence of San Francisco's police department was becoming the talk of the nation.

Charles Gain, who served from 1975 to 1980, was the last S.F. police chief hired from outside the department.
Charles Gain, who served from 1975 to 1980, was the last S.F. police chief hired from outside the department.
Seen here addressing reporters in Mesa, Gascon is known for using his facility with the media as a weapon in battling political foes.
Jamie Peachey
Seen here addressing reporters in Mesa, Gascon is known for using his facility with the media as a weapon in battling political foes.

In May 2008, SFPD failings became a topic of national discussion when the Washington Post published a story whose headline began, "Frustration with San Francisco Police; Two Cases Should Prompt Embarrassment."

The story described a case where police cadaver dogs indicated that an impounded vehicle contained human remains, yet officers waited eight days before looking inside it to find a body — giving the van's owners a running start. In what has become a San Francisco tradition where amateurs or frustrated friends and families of victims feel compelled to take investigations into their own hands, a concerned citizen tracked the fugitives in Mexico without any help from San Francisco police.

In what the Post story described as "the latest humiliation to the SFPD," San Francisco detectives surmised that Hugues de la Plaza, a French citizen, stabbed himself in the chest multiple times and washed and hid the knife before collapsing and dying. After heavy lobbying from de la Plaza's family and friends, a court order forced San Francisco police to allow the evidence to be reviewed by French investigators, who determined de la Plaza was murdered.

The case was one of several instances where apparent murders were not classified as homicides by San Francisco police that year (see our story "Stiffed," 9/10/08). Some victims' family members suspected police were gaming the numbers to make the murder rate appear lower, something a homicide lieutenant strongly denied at the time.

While Gascon wouldn't comment on the particulars of the de la Plaza investigation, he said there would be no fudging of the numbers on his watch.

"If it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, it's a duck," he said. "A homicide is a homicide. A suicide is a suicide. You can tell one from another. I'm not interested in playing games with the numbers. If we have 150 homicides, we have 150 homicides. Playing with numbers, playing with definitions, is not a way to make the community safer."

It's not as if public officials haven't been aware of problems with San Francisco's finest. A 2003 measure gave the police commission more independence and greater powers in handling misconduct cases. But the revamped commission has become a bureaucratic albatross, dragging down the department with a 1,000-case backlog that could take years to clear.

Meanwhile, a much-ballyhooed consultants' report issued last year said the department must better analyze crime data, put more deskbound officers on the street, reorganize the way it conducts investigations, and collect better statistics. This was the latest in years' worth of studies that have essentially said the same thing: San Francisco hosts a dysfunctional department reminiscent of 1980s New York, or 1990s Los Angeles — before these departments were reorganized under Gascon's mentor, former NYPD Chief and current LAPD Chief William Bratton.

In this light, bringing in a Bratton-trained outsider seemed to the Police Commission just what San Francisco needed. "There were a lot of great programs done in Los Angeles," Sparks said. "Chief Bratton really is an innovator in best practices."

"The San Francisco Police Department has been studied to death," Gascon told me, echoing the kind of can-do talk that must have sounded like music to world-weary police commissioners during his job interview. "It's time to actually do things. We're going to have to get the stakeholders together and say, 'There's no more money, no more people, and we have 30 to 60 days to fix this stuff.'"

San Franciscans are used to hearing "fix-it" talk from incoming chiefs, eight of whom have left during the past two decades. Gascon, however, has the chops to back the talk. He has overseen at first hand the full-scale bureaucratic warfare required to overhaul a police department on the skids.

As assistant chief of police in Los Angeles, Gascon was quietly pushing to eliminate the department's cowboy-bluster approach to policing, long before that sort of reformist talk became fashionable in the 2000s. And in Mesa, he was praised for his outreach to community leaders, making them feel they had a stake in building a new type of police force built on transparency and accountability.

"I've been in Mesa for 22 years, and when Gascon was selected, it was the first time that Mesa went outside its comfort zone," Mesa park ranger John Goodie said. "A lot of officers retired; others went to different agencies. He came in with a no-nonsense shake-and-bake attitude to get the police department headed in the right direction. He brought in new things that were done in Los Angeles — he introduced big city policing. Mesa is a city of 450,000. So the things he brought in were desperately needed."

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