SAN FRANCISCO | The death of a young black woman in a stolen car proved to be the breaking point in a series of shootings and racially tinged scandals that led to the resignation of San Francisco’s police chief.
A new acting chief is now tasked with mending the department’s strained relations with the black community. Deputy Chief Toney Chaplin, a 26-year department veteran who is black, was appointed by the mayor after Greg Suhr stepped down Thursday, hours after the woman was shot.
Chaplin has the confidence of at least one key supporter.
“Toney Chaplin has the charisma, chemistry and courage to lead this department,” said the Rev. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP.
Brown also supported Suhr through the department’s difficulties and said the police’s problems “are bigger than one man.”
But pressure has been mounting for new leadership since December, when five officers fatally shot a young black man carrying a knife. Since then, there have been protests, moves to reform the police department and a federal review of its protocols.
Mayor Ed Lee supported the chief in December and again in April after revelations that three officers had exchanged racist text messages. But hours after Thursday’s shooting, Lee asked for Suhr’s resignation and received it.
“The progress we’ve made has been meaningful, but it hasn’t been fast enough,” Lee said in a brief statement at City Hall. “Not for me, not for Greg.”
Suhr could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The two had stood together through several scandals, announced a series of reforms aimed at reducing police shootings and called in the U.S. Department of Justice to review the force’s policies and procedures.
Suhr had been criticized for moving too slowly to fire several officers who exchanged racist text messages dating back to before his time as chief. All of them retained their jobs because Suhr failed to start disciplinary action when he first found out about the inappropriate conduct.
New disclosures later followed that other police also had sent racist texts.
Protesters demanding Suhr’s resignation drowned out the mayor’s second inaugural speech in January, and demonstrators forced Lee to abandon a planned speech on Martin Luther King Jr. Day later that month.
Suhr renewed his call for reform April 8 after an officer shot and killed a Latino homeless man who police said refused orders to drop a large knife.
But he lost the mayor’s backing Thursday, after a patrol car searching an industrial neighborhood for stolen vehicles came across a 27-year-old black woman sitting behind the wheel of a parked car.
Police said the car had been reported stolen. Officers turned on the patrol car’s lights and sounded its siren, and the woman sped off.
A few seconds later and about 100 feet away, the stolen car slammed into a parked utility truck.
The officers raced to the wreckage, where the woman was revving the car to try to get away. A witness reported that the officers opened the driver’s door and began grabbing her to try to arrest her, Suhr said.
At that point, a sergeant fired one deadly round.
“This is exactly the kind of thing with all the reforms we are trying to prevent,” Suhr said less than two hours after the shooting and before he resigned.
The identity of the dead woman has not been released. She was shot in the same neighborhood where five officers killed Mario Woods, a 26-year-old black man carrying a knife.
Video of Woods’ shooting circulated widely online, leading to protests and calls for Suhr’s resignation.
The mayor and other community leaders said at the time that they wanted to give the chief time to implement the changes he promised.
“Some of the reforms underway might have prevented or clarified today’s incident,” Lee said Thursday. “We need to turn these plans into actions.”
Lee appointed Suhr chief in 2011. He was a 34-year veteran of the department who rose through the ranks despite several professional missteps.
He was demoted from deputy chief to captain in 2009 after failing to file a police report after a female friend told him she had been assaulted by her boyfriend.
The city last year paid $725,000 to settle a wrongful termination lawsuit by a former department lawyer who recommended Suhr’s firing for failing to report his friend’s assault. When Suhr became chief, he fired the lawyer.
Suhr also was reassigned from head of patrol in 2005 to guarding the city’s water supply, which was widely viewed as a demotion.
Two years earlier, he was one of several officers indicted in the city’s “Fajitagate” on allegations of trying to cover up an investigation of three off-duty officers who had beaten up a waiter and took his bag of Mexican food. The indictment was tossed out.