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.

During two interviews with SF Weekly earlier this month, Gascon suggested that he's aware that his plans for changing the way San Francisco police fight crime will require stepping on toes. And he seemed to be ready to take criticism — and, when necessary, give it.

In permissive San Francisco, public officials have been loath to even discuss, let alone attack, the crime surrounding the city's ubiquitous drug traffic. Gascon suggested he might be willing to risk the wrath of the social libertarian set by focusing on crimes that might not have been aggressively prosecuted before. "We're going to reduce the peddling of drugs, street sales of drugs," he said. "And to the extent that drugs involve gang activity, violence, or people competing for a corner, we're going to go after that."

And despite his reputation in conservative Mesa as a coddler of undocumented immigrants, Gascon told me he'll concentrate on policing immigrant communities, including illegal ones: "I think it's a mistake to give anybody a get out of jail card. If you're committing crimes other than crossing the border illegally, the police should be using every tool in the bag against you."

Gascon promised to attack the city's notoriously ineffective police discipline system, in which more than 200 officers languish in desk jobs rather than patrol the street, while many wait years for accusations of misconduct to be heard by the Police Commission. In a recent column ("On Thin Ice," 06/17/09), I described how this system demoralizes and embitters officers, while wasting millions of tax dollars paying cops for clerical work.

"You cannot have 200 people sitting around," Gascon insisted. "It's too costly economically, as well as in terms of public safety. If we have 10 percent of the force sitting on ice, we can't afford not to fix it. If you have a half-billion-dollar budget, and 90 percent of that is paying people, and 10 percent of them are sitting around not doing productive work, that's unacceptable."

Gascon said he'd also change the department's notorious reputation for secrecy. Routine obfuscation is a backward practice with myriad defenders within the SFPD. During the 13 years I've reported on San Francisco law enforcement, police have consistently refused to disclose basic information such as incident reports. As a matter of routine, the department cites loopholes in state public records laws that say documents can be withheld if publicity could undermine an ongoing investigation. This has allowed the department to keep the public in the dark about allegations of police incompetence or brutality, thus reducing the impetus for reform.

To name two examples among many: In February 2002, I wrote about how the SFPD hid information about the police asphyxiation of a man who'd shoplifted a blender ("Bound and Gagged," 2/20/02). And just last month the department refused to release to me three-year-old records about a fugitive shot by police, citing the "ongoing investigation" excuse.

Gascon plans an about-face toward greater openness. "I come from a world where everything is public record from day one," he said. "You don't want to undermine the integrity of an investigation, but police business is public business. We have to be careful that we do not use protecting an ongoing investigation as an excuse. We're not in the business of hiding things. I think the onus is that you have to show that the release of information actually is going to compromise an investigation. The burden should be on the side of those who wish to withhold information. The overarching principle should be openness and transparency."

Most pressing to San Franciscans has been the police department's notorious failure to bring criminals to justice. A 2002 Chronicle inquiry showed that detectives investigating violent crime were loath to leave their desks, preferring instead to pursue leads by phone, and simply let many crimes drop through the cracks.

Gascon said the solution is straightforward: improve the department's ability to obtain and analyze information about crimes, then weed out weak performers. "If the captain is not performing, or the lieutenants, officers, or sergeants, it's really simple," he said. "It's not very complicated. Good performance comes to the surface."

Mesa Command staff at the losing end of Gascon's drive to upend policing in that desert suburb didn't see a visionary. They saw a leader blinkered by preconceived notions, trucked in from Los Angeles, who was prone to making snap judgments before he'd taken the time to figure out what was going on.

The San Francisco police union is already girding for a similar battle. In the July newsletter of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, president Gary Delagnes wrote a front-page column noting that the union had fought to have an insider hired as incoming chief, and that Gascon's outsider status portends a culture clash.

Gascon arrives "via two police departments that bear very little similarity to our own," Delagnes wrote. "It's going to be interesting on both sides of the equation. I have advised him to get to know the members and don't prejudge anything or anyone until he has had the chance to meet our people."

Ex-chief Ribera echoes Delagnes' advice. He compares Gascon to the last outsider to lead the department. "Charlie Gain, in 1975, when he came in, made the decisions too quickly," Ribera said. "He came in and did some quick interviews, and made his decisions based on those interviews. There were a lot of ruffled feathers. If the new chief were to ask my advice, I'd say, 'Take your time on this.' There's no urgency. I can tell you the people in there now are all quality people. They may not fit into his current plans. But they're quality people."

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