Make no mistake: Being San Francisco police chief is a political job. But though public outcry cost former San Francisco police Chief Greg Suhr his post, San Francisco's citizens have little say in directly selecting who leads the department, because unlike the offices of sheriff or district attorney, the police chief is appointed by Mayor Ed Lee.
On the surface, it might seem contradictory to elect a sheriff while appointing a police chief. Both are top law enforcement positions, both are inherently bureaucratic, and require dealing with the same people at City Hall and in the streets.
But this is the way it's always been done, even if it doesn't have to be.
“If the chief of police was elected, I guarantee you that you'd have better results,” Mike Slade, a retired police lieutenant still active in SFPD charity work, tells SF Weekly. “You wouldn't have someone hanging onto the job, fearful of the mayor. You'd have someone saying, 'I don't care what you think — I'll do what's best for my officers and best for the community.' “
Recent San Francisco history offers a prime example of the merits of appointed versus elected law enforcers. In 2012, former sheriff Ross Mirkarimi was sworn in under the dark cloud of domestic violence accusations. Strong arguments were made that because of the scandal involving his wife, he was never going to keep the job beyond his first term — and he didn't, though he did survive a lengthy disciplinary process.
Now take this same scenario and apply it to the police chief. Had a brand-new police chief been in Mirkarimi's situation, would he or she have kept the job, or been summarily removed?
It's impossible to say, but at least the option exists for someone — in this case, the mayor — to immediately make that decision. And what that does is remove politics from the equation.
At least one elected leader thinks this is the way it should be.
“We should not politicize the department by making the chief an elected position,” says Supervisor Jane Kim, an outspoken critic of Greg Suhr. Kim had publicly appealed for his ouster before the chief was pressured to resign last week. “The solution is to make sure we elect leaders at every level who will hold the chief, and every department head, fully accountable.”
There is something tantalizing in the notion of giving the people the power to pick their police chief. Any city could do it, if that city went through a time-consuming and expensive process to change the city charter.
But as California's same-sex marriage ban in 2008 proved, voters make mistakes and those mistakes can be difficult to reverse. And even if the job were up for election, there's no guarantee anyone would care. Santa Clara is the only city in California that elects its police chief. And the last time the position was up for election, in 2012, Michael Sellers ran unopposed.