San Francisco’s new police chief, an outsider from Arizona who has a reputation as a hardworking, no-nonsense reformer, will be sworn into office Friday.
George Gascon arrives from Mesa, Ariz., where he led that police department since 2006. Prior to that, he served 28 years in the Los Angeles Police Department.
In San Francisco, Gascon takes over a department that has already seen a number of changes in the past few years under the leadership of Heather Fong, who announced her retirement in December after four and a half years as chief.
During her tenure, Fong, San Francisco’s first female police chief, oversaw changes including the implementation of foot patrols, new zone policing strategies credited with recent drops in violence, and efforts to foster better relationships between police and the community.
She was widely praised by city leaders for her integrity, honesty and strong work ethic but was criticized by some members of the department who claimed she was not assertive enough as a leader.
Former San Francisco Police Chief Tony Ribera, who led the department from 1992 to 1996, said that by selecting Gascon to replace Fong, the mayor’s office and the Police Commission signaled that “it was time for a change.”
However, he said, outsiders face particular challenges when implementing reforms.
“The track record of outsiders has not been very good,” Ribera said in an interview Wednesday. “That doesn’t mean that Chief Gascon won’t be good,” he added.
The most recent outsiders include Charles Gain, who was Oakland’s police chief before taking over San Francisco’s police department in 1975, and Richard Hongisto, a former Cleveland police chief and San Francisco supervisor.
Gain served for five years. Hongisto lasted 42 days before he was fired.
Both men suffered either perceived or actual difficulties in maintaining support from inside the department, Ribera said.
Ribera said that to succeed, Gascon should tread carefully and try to involve station heads in the changes he makes.
“While being proactive, he still needs to be respectful of the department and the culture, and particularly of the captains,” Ribera said.
“His success or failure will be on the performance of the captains, and he needs to have the captains on board,” Ribera said.
“We have some very unique problems (in San Francisco),” he said. “But we have a lot of really good captains who have been dealing with those problems for some time.”
Ribera, who now heads the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of San Francisco, said he also hopes Gascon will realize “that the department is not a disaster.” He credited the patrol division with being “very productive” and said the department’s community policing efforts are working “as well as in any major city.”
Ribera highlighted deficiencies in technology and with case clearances in the investigations bureau, which handles felonies, as some of the main areas that need to be addressed.
“Those are the two really sore thumbs in the department,” he said.
In Los Angeles, Gascon served under Police Chief William Bratton and later introduced Bratton’s CompStat crime pattern tracking system in Mesa. He may implement a similar change in San Francisco.
Bratton developed the CompStat computer system when he ran the New York City Police Department. CompStat, short for computer statistics, uses statistical data to track crime patterns and deploy resources quickly to handle them, and is designed to hold police captains accountable for crimes in their districts.
Bratton’s announcement on Wednesday that he is stepping down as Los Angeles’ police chief prompted speculation that Gascon, who is rumored to have been interested in Bratton’s post, would change his mind about coming to San Francisco. However, Gascon has said in media reports that he intends to keep the San Francisco job.
Gascon will be sworn in at a ceremony at City Hall Friday afternoon, according to the mayor’s office.
Ribera said it is important to note that the chief of police works for the mayor and the Police Commission.
“Hopefully they’ll give him the support he needs to get the job done,” he said. “Most of the solutions cost a few bucks.”
Gary Delagnes, who heads the San Francisco Police Officers Association, has also acknowledged Gascon enters a highly politicized environment in San Francisco.
Delagnes described Gascon as “very savvy, very intelligent … and articulate,” adding that Gascon had assured him he would also work closely with the union.
“My attitude is we should give him the benefit of the doubt and wish him well,” said Ribera. “I hope he’s very successful.”