SF's New Top Cop Won't Have Contract Protection

By John Geluardi keystone.jpg

The San Francisco Police Commission will begin the New Year by kicking off a national search for new police chief who, unfortunately, will be denied a critical tool to make improvements on one of the most dysfunctional departments in the country.

Chief Heather Fong, who will step down in April, leaves behind a technologically backwards and rudderless police department in which the only thing lower than morale are the arrest statistics.

The most poigant statistic is the department's deteriorating ability to clear the ever rising homicide cases. Now remember, a case is considered "cleared," once an arrest is made never mind a conviction (which is whole other story). In 2002, the homicide detail cleared about 50 percent of its cases while the average for similar sized cities in the state was 61 percent. In 2007, when officially there were 98 homicides, the city's clearance rate was 25 percent while the other cities were at an average of 51 percent. 

The new chief will be expected to make dramatic change in a department steeped in a stagnant culture that elevates the status quo above all else. But the new chief will not have the benefit of a critical five-year contract, which was highly recommended in a recent report that took a year to complete and cost taxpayers $400,000.
Having a contract would inoculate the new chief from the vagaries of ambitious elected officials who are more worried about the perception of stopping crime than actually stopping it. A new chief protected by job security could be an effective agent of change instead of a cowed manager who is reduced to hopelessly trying to keep the sails dry on a fast sinking boat.

Police Commission president Theresa Sparks says offering the new chief a contract would be her first choice, but the city does not have the authority to do so. There are only three positions the city charter allows to have employment contracts, the executive director of the Municipal Transportation Authority, the director of elections and the general manager of the PUC. Before a police chief can be offered a contract, voters will have to approve an amendment to the city charter.

"I think a contract with the chief is a good idea, it's worked well in Los Angeles where they've just signed a second contract with Chief William Bratton," Sparks says. "It is a way to insulate police chiefs from the influence of politicians who are here for a short time and may, or may not, have police experience."

Police Officers Association President Gary Delagnes would also like to see a chief who can challenge the department's lethargy without being hamstrung by political forces.

 "I'm a big supporter of a contract, I don't know if it should be five years, But a contract would give the chief some protection from political whims and agendas," Delagnes says. "This city is like none other for a police chief, you're a lightening rod for everybody in the city and there are so many people looking to put a knife in your back."

The national search for a new chief will begin early in the New Year and the process will take about seven months. The Police Commission will contract with a search firm, vet and interview the crop of applicants and finally submit a list of three names to Mayor Gavin Newsom who will make the final choice.
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