California's only Black female police chief has a smaller force and a big challenge
June 19, 2021,
Updated: June 19, 2021 4 a.m.
Richmond Police Chief Bisa French hands stickers out to local kids following a Walking School Bus event to promote safe streets for students traveling between Verde Elementary School and programs at Shields-Reid Community Center in Richmond, Calif. Monday, June 14, 2021. Richmond Police Chief Bisa French and her allies recently defeated a plan by Richmond's Reimagining task force to shift $10.3 million from the police budget to social services, which would have required laying off 35 officers.
Jessica Christian/The Chronicle
Richmond police Chief Bisa French pulled a newspaper clipping out of her wallet: several yellowing paragraphs from September 2003, documenting the night she almost died.
At the time French’s second child was 2 months old, and she was back at work as a beat officer on the graveyard shift. She was lingering with a group of firefighters outside a liquor store on 37th Street and Wall Avenue when someone began shooting. Bullets flew through car windshields, pelted buildings and sailed through a nearby park.
“We were scrambling,” French recalled. “We were hitting the ground, trying to get behind the fire truck. Luckily none of us were hit.”
Police never arrested any suspects.
The memory was still fresh last Monday morning, as French, now the head of the department, prepared to face a critical test of leadership.
The city is reducing its police force to 145 officers — the lowest number in 18 years and a 26% drop since 2015, according to city budget documents. It’s part of a new vision of public safety that’s being tried throughout the country, with cities diverting money from law enforcement to social services.
In Richmond, as in other cities, the concept became polarizing. Activists and progressive city councilmembers embraced it, pressing for a more creative approach to stop crime while pointing to a long history of police abusing people of color. Leaders of the city’s 37 neighborhood councils mostly balked, arguing that the city still suffers high rates of shootings and robberies.
French, who urged the city not to cut her workforce, joined safety advocates from the Fairmede-Hilltop Neighborhood Council for a demonstration on Monday. The group walked children from Verde Elementary School to the Shields-Reid Community Center in North Richmond, where a man was shot in the head 11 days earlier.
By the end of the walk, French was clutching her back. Too many years of wearing a gun belt, she said. A month of citywide policing debates hadn’t helped.
She had one more day to make her case.
Richmond Police Chief Bisa French meets Contra Costa County sheriffs, local community leaders and school board members after walking through the Shields-Reid neighborhood of Richmond during a Walking School Bus event to promote safe streets for students traveling between Verde Elementary School and programs at Shields-Reid Community Center in Richmond, Calif. Monday, June 14, 2021. Richmond Police Chief Bisa French and her allies recently defeated a plan by Richmond's Reimagining task force to shift $10.3 million from the police budget to social services, which would have required laying off 35 officers.
Jessica Christian/The Chronicle
Shortly before midnight on Tuesday, the City Council voted 4-2, with one abstention, to eliminate 12 vacant positions from the Richmond Police Department. The council shifted $3 million in department cuts to a variety of programs and services, including jobs for youth, assistance for the unhoused, gun violence intervention by the Office of Neighborhood Safety, and community crisis responders for people suffering mental health episodes.
Another $3.4 million will come from housing development fees, surplus stimulus money and paring down the city’s vehicle fleet. Richmond’s police budget hovered at $67.2 million this year. Next year’s budget is not yet final.
The proposal was one of six presented to the council during a marathon meeting. Dozens of speakers weighed in, with a majority supporting what they saw as a relatively modest trim to law enforcement, far less than a plan the council scrapped last week, to shave $10.3 million and lay off 35 officers. The city’s Reimagining Public Safety Community Task Force had crafted that plan, though its members later endorsed the more moderate revision.
Richmond officials formed the task force to strengthen relationships between police and the community after the murder of George Floyd last year.
“All we’re doing with these recommendations is providing access to the youth, to the homeless, to the mentally challenged, to the people that are on the streets homeless, with substance abuse issues, with trauma issues — and that should be clear,” resident and community organizer Adey Teshagar said during public comment. She described herself as a product of Richmond’s social safety net, having risen from homelessness last year to attain a stable job and housing.
Others lobbied for a different option that would still direct $6.4 million to services, without extracting anything from the police force. Many invoked the kids at Verde Elementary School, saying they shouldn’t have to feel afraid walking through their neighborhood to get to a summer program. Some chided the proponents of police cuts for what they saw as disrespect toward French, who is currently the only Black woman in the state at the helm of a municipal police department.
“You believed she was the right one,” Naomi Williams, president of the Pullman Neighborhood Council on the city’s south side, said of French. “But she needs to have the amount of sworn officers to do her work right.”
The reimagining discussions put the chief, and city, in a fragile position. French’s appointment a year ago was widely considered a sign of progress: she came to the force as a 22-year-old single mother in 1998, and later worked graveyard shifts while studying criminal justice management at San Francisco State University. She has pushed to recruit more women and people of color to law enforcement, worrying that budget cuts would undue her efforts to diversify the department.
Richmond Police Chief Bisa French meets with local constituents and officials after a Walking School Bus event to promote safe streets for students traveling between Verde Elementary School and programs at Shields-Reid Community Center in Richmond, Calif. Monday, June 14, 2021. Richmond Police Chief Bisa French and her allies recently defeated a plan by Richmond's Reimagining task force to shift $10.3 million from the police budget to social services, which would have required laying off 35 officers.
Jessica Christian/The Chronicle
A few police critics maintain they want to help French, in part by bolstering social programs to address the root causes of crime. Task force member Randy Joseph praised the chief and emphasized that the new safety paradigm “is not a personal attack.”
French “is an amazing person,” said Joseph, who also chairs the city’s Community Police Review Commission. “I want her to succeed.”
Nonetheless, French has a sober view of her department’s constraints. Two people submitted resignations this week, she said, and replacing them will be a challenge.
With a staff of 145 officers frozen in place, police won’t have time to address complex issues that often require coordination with multiple agencies, she said. The rank-and-file are burned out. Overtime is no longer an enticement. She couldn’t recruit anyone for the weekend fireworks detail. She worries about the more complex assignments, such as investigating catalytic converter thefts.
Detectives in the property unit used to tackle those cases by hitting hot spots and visiting recycling centers, but only two are left.
Even before Tuesday’s vote, uncertainty about the future seemed to weigh on the chief. Walking up to Shields-Reid on Monday, she passed the bush where officers found 46-year-old Shedrick Williams on June 3, with a gunshot wound to his head. A helicopter landed near the baseball diamond to air-lift him to the hospital. He died three days later.
It was the city’s seventh homicide of the year. The eighth occurred last week, when Emeryville resident Aaron Burrell was shot and killed in the Hilltop neighborhood. His death signaled an uptick: Richmond had seen five homicides by the end of June last year.
French flashed a hopeful smile as the children filed into Shields-Reid for summer day camp. The next few days would bring closure: the chief would finally be able to map out her budget. The residents would remain divided. The mayor, Tom Butt, would grumble in a phone interview that he “hates being the mayor” — he was among the dissenting votes.
All of that seemed far away on Monday, when French left Shields-Reid and slowly walked to her car, one hand clasped to her waist. Her back still ached.
Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @rachelswan