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The Outsider

New SFPD chief William Scott’s bona fides and record are impeccable. So why is the department chilly on his arrival?

SFPD chief William Scott.


Over the seven months following the May 2016 resignation of SFPD chief Greg Suhr, members of the city’s Police Commission embarked on a marathon listening tour at police stations around the city, during which rank-and-file officers were asked who they thought should be their next leader and why. In station house after station house, the city officials heard variations of the same argument: The cops wanted one of their own. They wanted an SFPD lifer. They wanted, in so many words, acting chief Toney Chaplin, who’d spent his entire 26-year career within the department, and who was being promoted by the influential S.F. Police Officers Association (POA) as Suhr’s rightful heir. But failing all that, they had one last, overarching request: They wanted someone who was not a member of the Los Angeles Police Department.

On December 20, the officers learned that their wishes had not been granted. In fact, they’d been completely rebuffed. Standing behind a lectern at City Hall with a gamely smiling Chaplin to his immediate right, Mayor Ed Lee announced the hiring of William “Bill” Scott—a deputy chief and 27-year man at the LAPD. It was a turn of events that both blindsided and undercut San Francisco’s scandal-plagued police department. The POA, which had not-so-subtly lobbied the mayor to appoint Chaplin, notably skipped the new chief’s introductory press conference. Union president Marty Halloran later wrote in a communiqué to his membership that Lee had “turned his back” on the SFPD in picking Scott “in secret, behind closed doors.” If the cops were going to be led by an outsider, a former department honcho subsequently told me, “they would have preferred one from anywhere else in the world. Including Moscow.”

The relationship between the LAPD and the SFPD, it turns out, is a microcosm of the classic rivalry between Angelenos and San Franciscans. They don’t think much of us, when they think of us at all. But we dislike them, intensely. “The LAPD is everything the SFPD is not,” says an SFPD street cop with nearly a decade on the job. “They are very strict. They are very procedure-based. You follow the rules to a T. You do not deviate from anything.” Adds a longtime LAPD cop, “The LAPD is much more rigid, for good and bad. There is always a tension between San Francisco and Los Angeles.”

LAPD rookie William Scott in 1989.

For many in the department, it’s difficult to read Scott’s ascension as anything other than a slap in the face. For the second time in the last decade, the mayor decided to bypass all internal candidates in favor of an Angeleno who, by and large, knows little about the culture and traditions of a proud, if flawed, department. For Scott, this dynamic presents countless challenges. The captains and command staff that he inherits were, for the most part, elevated by his deposed predecessor Suhr, with no small degree of influence and approval from the POA, the bellicose union that never wanted Scott here in the first place. Put succinctly, the new chief is in an unfamiliar city and surrounded by unfamiliar people whose motives and loyalties remain unclear.

Harry Truman purportedly said that newcomers seeking friendship in Washington, D.C., should get a dog. If Scott is looking for pals in San Francisco, suggests a retired SFPD commander, he might instead opt for a cat. “Why a cat?” he asks himself rhetorically. “Better to have nine lives here.”

There is a
tradition of policing in San Francisco that you won’t find in any manuals. “Let’s say I saw a crackhead smoking in an alley,” says a veteran officer, by way of example. If the cop was following official procedure, he’d cite the crack smoker and bring the crack pipe and narcotics to the nearest station house, where he’d type up a report. After entering the pipe into an evidence locker at the station, he’d transport the drugs to the Hall of Justice for booking. “He’d get a ticket, and I’d be out of commission for at least two hours,” says the officer. In other words, continues the cop, the inconveniences for the arresting officer would be far greater than for the lawbreaker: “It’s San Francisco! He’d have a ticket, and within five minutes he’d be doing the exact same thing.” In the real world, an SFPD cop would likely take a different tack when faced with this scenario: “If I walk up to him and say, ‘Smash it,’ and walk off, he is now no longer smoking crack in public. Problem solved.”

By the letter of the law, the above scenario is illegal—it constitutes destruction of evidence. Among SFPD officers, however, it has its own nickname: the San Francisco Way. This, say officers up and down the chain of command, is how we roll. “San Francisco is its own animal,” says a well-traveled former cop who worked in the SFPD and elsewhere. Police officers here “have gone to grammar school together. They’ve dated each other. The relationships go way beyond police work. It’s a relationship-built department.”

But the trouble with a “relationship-built department” is that it often exists for the benefit of the cops engaged in those relationships. It’s certainly not a boon for an interloper chief responsible for fixing a broken culture, and it’s definitely not to the benefit of the average San Franciscan, at least not lately. Serious crime has surged in the city since 2011; thefts from vehicles, for example, nearly tripled between 2011 and 2015. In the same time frame, the department’s arrest rate dropped by half, from 18 percent of serious crimes to just 9 percent—despite the addition of hundreds of new officers. And, rather than protecting the city from criminals, in myriad instances the SFPD has defaulted to protecting its own. In a relationship-built department, lieutenants and station captains can leak word to problem cops that internal affairs is ready to swoop in on them. Command staffers can allow controversial orders to languish on their desks rather than face the blowback that will come with signing them. And well-connected higher-ups can subvert the disciplinary process altogether, personally taking care of problems in exchange for a favor down the line—for them, for their kid, for their friend, for their friend’s kid, whoever.

In some very real ways, according to longtime members of the force, the SFPD doesn’t function as a meritocracy but instead as a system of favors, with the keepers of the most chits rising to the top. And these favors can still be called in even after a higher-up has retired or been dismissed. “Close relationships in this department are unbreakable,” says a former cop. “It is a real challenge as an outside chief to get people to work with you.”

It’s soft corruption and nepotism like this that leads the SFPD to be labeled—and not favorably—as an East Coast department on the West Coast. The LAPD in which Bill Scott was the highest-ranking African American, while by no means pristine, has quite a different scouting report. In an odd dichotomy, over the last several generations the LAPD has earned a reputation for brutality—spraying some 5,000 rounds at the Symbionese Liberation Army; viciously beating Rodney King and abusing countless other people of color; framing innocent people in the Rampart scandal—and, at the same time, for militaristic fetishization of rules and regulations. The LAPD is, and always has been, a spit-and-polish department.

Of course, the LAPD of 2017 is no longer the department of illiberal hard-liners like Daryl Gates and William H. Parker. Following the exposure of the Rampart affair—a massive case of corruption within the force’s antigang unit—the LAPD was in 2001 placed under a federal consent decree that lasted a dozen years. Scott now says that his tenure during this era of widespread reform is “valuable experience I bring to the table here,” and city officials point to it as an example of Scott’s proven ability to “manage through change.” But while the LAPD’s reputation for ferocity has softened, it continues to be perceived as a department stocked with martinets and sticklers. “We had a bible,” notes one LAPD veteran. “Everything that happens in that department you can find in the bible: from the length of your mustache to fingernail polish to earrings you can wear.”

Scott will not be bringing this bible to San Francisco. He also won’t be bringing a right-hand man from Los Angeles or conscripting a management consultant to audit the SFPD, as former LAPD assistant chief George Gascón did prior to assuming command in San Francisco in 2009. “It’s my duty and my obligation and my responsibility to develop the talent that is here,” Scott tells me at department headquarters, just days after his January swearing-in. “It’s nice to have people around you that are loyal to you. But my priority is loyalty to this organization and loyalty to this city, not to me. That’s what I look for.”

“It is not my purpose to make this LAPD North,” Scott concludes, unmistakably employing the very term many SFPD officers still derisively use to refer to Gascón’s tenure.

San Francisco cops’
antipathy to the LAPD is one of many old department traditions. But it reached new heights following Gascón’s brief tenure atop the department. In 2009, the LAPD veteran attempted to address the SFPD’s perceived lack of professionalism; his raison d’être was to bring the department into the 21st century by breaking its logjam of disciplinary cases and installing the CompStat system pioneered by former NYPD and LAPD chief Bill Bratton—Gascón’s former boss. Instead, after only a year and change, then-mayor Gavin Newsom—who enjoyed making out-of-the-box, headline-grabbing appointments—elevated Gascón to district attorney (Gascón was seen as a shoo-in for reelection, unobjectionable to both the city’s moderates and its progressives). Mayor Lee subsequently tapped department lifer Suhr as chief. In the ensuing years, Gascón often butted heads with Suhr and the POA. The union then cast him in a role that continues to this day: as a bogeyman figure for all that ails San Francisco law enforcement.

Despite rumors floating around the department that Gascón and Scott were tight in L.A., the truth is that they essentially knew each other only as names on a vast org chart (the LAPD is roughly four times the size of the SFPD). Scott is a decade younger than Gascón, a protégé of current LAPD chief Charlie Beck rather than a Bratton acolyte like Gascón. He wears his uniform around the city; Gascón favored a business suit. Even their career paths are variant: Gascón earned a law degree; Scott majored in accounting. And Scott, unlike Gascón, is not perceived as a flashy, itinerant chief using San Francisco as a stepping stone to bigger jobs. “We’ve all heard this guy [Scott] is pretty good,” says an SFPD officer who, like many cops contacted for this story, has already run his own informal investigation into his new boss. “He expected a lot from the people who worked under him, but if they were doing the right thing, he’d back them up. He’s a legit cop.”

And he’s now a legit chief sworn to lead a department saddled with 272 recommendations on equitable policing from the Department of Justice; to mend tattered relations with communities of color after a litany of questionable police shootings; and to face the embarrassing conundrum of rising crime, dwindling arrests, and an expanding police force.

That’s a hard lot for any chief to face, let alone Scott, who spent 27 years internalizing another institution’s bible. Officer gripes about being mandated to read the DOJ’s assessment of the department or the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing report are not likely to meet a sympathetic ear with Scott. Nor will complaints that new racial reporting requirements tie up cops, and will lead to them curtailing proactive engagements with potential suspects. “Laws evolve,” Scott says curtly of his officers’ reputed resistance to change. “We have to evolve with them.” There are solid efforts under way here to reduce both property and violent crime, he continues.

“But...I think there’s room to grow.” Scott would like to see more cops walking foot patrols; if need be, he’ll “consolidate some units where there’s duplication of effort. With that consolidation, hopefully, we can squeeze some officers back into the field.”

So that’s what the chief wants (and, if years of public testimony are to be believed, that’s what the city wants, too). The varying desires of the department’s thousands of working cops—whose respect and trust Scott knows he must earn—are less clear. But it escaped no one’s notice that the officers in January handily elected incumbent POA president Marty Halloran and his chosen slate of union leaders. Halloran sees this as a validation of his three and a half years in office, during which the POA has dug in its heels to fight almost any attempt at reforming the department’s use-of-force rules. The union’s fealty to the new chief is nonexistent, and even its most politic statements about Scott are marked by an ambivalence bordering on hostility. “Right now, we don’t have any differences with Bill Scott,” Halloran tells me in a matter-of-fact monotone. “He hasn’t proven anything one way or the other.”

At the tail
end of his January swearing-in at City Hall—in front of an audience of city movers and shakers, elected officials, bureaucrats, a handful of protesters, an ocean of blue-coated SFPD officers, and perhaps even more LAPD members who’d flown and driven north to toast the elevation of one of their own—Scott paused and fingered his gleaming, intricately detailed new chief’s star. He’d never forget its number: 26. That’s the day of his wife’s birthday, he told the crowd to a chorus of aws.

Touching though the moment was, the honeymoon for a 21st-century police chief is rarely a long one. It ends precisely when one of the thousands of cops under his watch does something bad on video. Once that happens—well, there’s a reason that chiefs in this and every town don’t tend to last long. The demands of community activists, business owners, rank-and-file cops, the POA, and city politicians are often contradictory and intractable. It’s fundamentally impossible to make everyone happy in pressure-cooker San Francisco. Scott will have to tiptoe a fine line when dealing with police reformers. He’ll have to thread the needle between an aggressive union and a cautious and politically sensitive Police Commission. He’ll have to decide how hard to push regarding whether his officers should carry Tasers—a contentious third rail in local policing. He’ll have to weather the potential elimination in 2018 of a provision that allows cops to be paid handsomely upon retirement for unused sick time, a contractual change that could induce a stampede of veterans to depart. And perhaps far sooner than that, Scott will face a daunting test if and when DA Gascón decides to file charges against officers in the shooting of Amilcar Perez-Lopez (or any number of outstanding police shooting cases), a decision that could drop at any time.

All of this and more awaits Chief Bill Scott: Every move he makes will be parsed and scoured and analyzed with a level of detail matching that on the hand-engraved No. 26 star now pinned over his heart. Handling the nuts and bolts of policing will, at some point, be more than a job duty for the new chief. It will be a relief. “Dealing with officers and police work,” he says, is the easy part. “Police work is police work. When it’s done right, it’s done right.”

And when it’s not? That’s when things get hard.


Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco 

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