How killings, racist texts, and a 66-year-old grandmother took down San Francisco's police chief

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Late Thursday evening, embattled San Francisco police chief Greg Suhr submitted his resignation, just hours after a city officer shot and killed a 27-year-old black woman who was driving in the city's Bayview district. It was the third officer-involved shooting in San Francisco during the last six months, a period that has seen unprecedented tension between local activists and the city's police force, spurred by accusations of violence and a high-profile scandal involving racist and homophobic texts sent by SFPD officers.

"The progress we've made has been meaningful, but it hasn't been fast enough," San Francisco mayor Ed Lee said in a prepared statement. "Not for me, not for Greg."

City Supervisor David Campos, who represents a district that includes the Mission, a neighborhood with a large Latino population, told Fusion that Suhr's resignation was overdue. “It’s clear this chief had lost control of the department and even the mayor couldn’t argue against that,” Campos said. “For those of us who have been critical of the mayor, I wish he would have done this sooner."


Suhr's resignation is another high-profile victory for the nationwide police reform movement. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel eliminated the city's Police Review Authority under intense scrutiny of the city's quality of investigations. In Los Angeles, Black Lives Matter protestors have gathered in front of the LAPD's headquarters, holding signs that read, "Are you going to arrest me too?" In Baltimore and Cleveland, officials have stepped down amid protests and accusations of police misconduct.

Suhr's resignation is also a victory for Maria Cristina Gutierrez, a local 66-year-old grandmother and activist who has made reforming San Francisco's police department her mission.

With a small group of activists known as the "Frisco 5," Gutierrez spent several weeks this spring camped outside a SFPD station, pledging to remain on a hunger strike until Suhr stepped down. For 17 days, the five protestors ate nothing but "water, coconut water, tea, and chicken broth" while Suhr remained in power.


“We are demanding the SFPD Chief Greg Suhr be fired. And if he’s not fired by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, then Mayor Lee should resign,” Gutierrez told Fusion last month, during the hunger strike's initial days.

“(The resignation) shows that the power of the people can show things, the unity of the people can accomplish stuff so we should believe in ourselves,” Gutierrez told 48Hills on Thursday night. “We’ve got a big job ahead of us. One of them is that the policemen who committed the murders has to go to jail. The next one is that there has to be true reforms in the police department. I also believe that the community needs to be involved in who is going to be the next chief."


Gutierrez and other local activists have spent months rallying, protesting, and agitating for change in the city's law enforcement. Her son, Equipto, has begun interrupting Mayor Lee's public speeches with messages about police accountability, and has held dance parties in protest of the city's police force.

“We’ve exhausted every avenue,” Equipto told Fusion in April.

The protests heated up in December, when San Francisco police shot and killed a 26-year-old black man named Mario Woods, claiming Woods gave them no choice but to use lethal force. A video shot at the scene, however, seemed to contradict this claim.


They intensified in April, when a 45-year-old homeless man named Luis Gongora was killed within 30 seconds of police exiting their car. Police say Gongora charged at them with a knife; multiple eyewitnesses, however, disputed that claim.

Evidence for interpreting these events as racially motivated presented itself in the form of multiple scandals involving racist text messages. In March of 2015, former SFPD Sergeant Ian Furminger's texts were uncovered as part of a motion to deny him bail on federal corruption charges. Many of the texts, which were exchanged between at least five SFPD officers, can be read here. An example:

In response to a text saying "Niggers should be spayed," Furminger wrote "I saw one an hour ago with 4 kids."


A little over a year later, texts similar in nature to the ones recovered from Furminger's phone emerged when SFPD officer Jason Lai was prosecuted on corruption charges. (The charges were eventually dropped.) A sampling of the texts Lai was found to have sent, via SFist:

“Indian ppl are disgusting.”

“Burn down walgreens and kill the bums.”

“Some nig tried to break into a diamond store on powell”

“Do you know what obama coffee is? Black and weak!”

San Francisco's police weren't just accused of racism. They also faced accusations of forcibly relocating homeless people during the Super Bowl. Some homeless people living beneath an underpass miles away from the city's temporary "Super Bowl City" installation claimed that police were moving them there to hide them from tourists traveling into town.


In response to these two killings, multiple racist texting scandals, and other perceived injustices, the "Frisco 5" took to the streets, and embarked on a hunger strike that they pledged to end only when Suhr resigned from his position.

“It’s not like we just decided to go on a hunger strike. We’re not stupid. It’s just that our protests, marches, and meetings haven’t done anything,” Gutierrez told Fusion.


Suhr was appointed San Francisco's police chief in 2011. In the early days of his tenure, he was well-regarded as a friendly, attentive chief. San Francisco Magazine wrote that Suhr's political instincts were savvy, and his personality was winning:

Suhr’s departmental supporters have shaken their heads at his survival skills. “He’s like a cat,” says one. “He’s got nine lives.” But unlike a cat, says a veteran elected official, “Greg is a nice guy. Affable.” The chief is self-effacing, earnest, and humble in public. He returns reporters’ phone calls and liberally disseminates his cell number to community members.


At first, Suhr was defensive in the face of the death of Mario Woods, and denied that officers had behaved improperly.

“We were able to enhance one second of the tweeted video… which shows the officer engaging with Mr. Woods and Mr. Woods’ arm with the knife outstretched,” SF Weekly reported Suhr saying.


But months later, Suhr began advocating for a slew of reforms, which he drafted alongside the mayor.

“For years we’ve been working as a police department with community members to foster trust,” Suhr said in a press conference. “Without trust in the community we can’t do our jobs."


Suhr's political talent, however, was not enough to save his job on Thursday, as activists demanded accountability for the city's policing failures and, finally, got their wish.

Toney Chaplin, formerly a deputy chief, will take over as acting chief. Suhr did not comment on the resignation.


Supervisor Campos said that, ultimately the SFPD is going to need a structural overhaul, including independent oversight, better training, and the implementation of tools like body cameras.


“You have to reform use of force policies, you have to actually enforce the policies and discipline officers who engage in misconduct,” Campos said.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter