For today’s Daily Critical Issues Report, Chuck Wexler interviewed Susan Manheimer, who in April accepted a position as Interim Police Chief in Oakland, CA, following 20 years as Chief in nearby San Mateo and nearly 17 years in the San Francisco Police Department. 

Many consider the chief’s job in Oakland one of the most difficult jobs in policing in the United States.  Chief Manheimer explains how the COVID-19 pandemic, bail reform, and COVID-related prison releases have made the job even more complicated.  But through it all, she remains optimistic.

Chuck Wexler:  Where did you grow up?

Interim Chief Susan Manheimer:  I grew up in the Bronx, New York. Believe it or not, my father was a City Councilman in New York and one of the persons responsible for enacting the first true civilian police review board.  Later, we moved to Washington, DC when my father received positions in the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and teaching at American University.  

Wexler:  How did you get from Maryland to San Francisco?

Chief Manheimer:   In 1975 I came out to San Francisco for the summer. I had just finished my second year at the University of Maryland in law enforcement. I met my future husband, fell in love with San Francisco, and stayed in California.

Wexler:  Did you always want to be a cop?

Chief Manheimer:  Yes. My Dad was involved in a lot of the police issues in the early 60s, so I grew up with a lot of police brass at our house, and I always looked at them as heroes.  John Jay College of Criminal Justice was in the Bronx at that time, and every time we go by it, I’d say, “Daddy, I want to go to John Jay College when I grow up.”  And he never said, “Susie, you can’t do that job.” He always said, “Susie, whatever you want.”  I grew up in a huge housing complex, and we knew our beat officers. They were at the park, they were assigned to our buildings, and that was what I wanted to be.

In the 1980s, there was a big minority recruitment drive for women in the San Francisco Police Department, because San Francisco was under a consent decree. They had been sued because of their lack of diversity. And I was encouraged to apply to the Police Department.

Wexler:  How long did you stay with the San Francisco Police Department?

Chief Manheimer:  Almost 17 years. 1984 to 2000.

Wexler:  What were your best memories of the San Francisco Police Department?

Chief Manheimer:  I loved every single part of it.  I was in the first generation of “promotees.”  There had been some women appointed to positions, but I was in that first group that promoted up through the ranks. That first group of women really had it tough. But they were so good, and they prevailed through a network of women officers with support from other associations like the black officers’ union.  So my second generation of women who came up received tremendous support, and we were really able to appreciate the tough work that that first generation had faced.

I tried to stay very operational. I didn’t want to go to the traditional “women’s jobs,” because I’ve always known that in policing, you’ve got to be able to answer those questions about operational and tactical expertise to be seen as a strong leader. And so I was on the crime suppression team and the robbery abatement team, which was great for me. I spent years in the Tenderloin, in the tougher areas of the city, and had a wonderful time.

Wexler:  It’s unusual for someone to leave after 17 years on the job and go be a chief somewhere else. Did it affect your pension?  These are issues that people sometimes have to grapple with.

Chief Manheimer:  Everything just worked out well for me. When I was recruited to take the test for the chief’s job in San Mateo, I was one of about 80 applicants, most of whom were sitting chiefs. I was only 43 years old and had never been above the rank of Captain. The recruiter, who is a friend of mine, said, “Just take the test for practice.”  I already lived in San Mateo County, and the city was just 20 miles down the road from San Francisco, so that’s what I did; I really took the test for practice.

When they offered the job to me, I was very shocked, and I turned it down. But the San Mateo city manager and the president of the police union come down to see me at the Tenderloin station. I’ll never forget it. They sat in my office, which was in the basement of a bank vault, and they saw the mice and the crazy things down in the Tenderloin.  They said, “You know, we really need you; our department is suffering.” They had had a captain who was fired for sexual harassment, and they were struggling. But I had done some research and could appreciate what a great department it really was.

And I had reached the point in San Francisco, in the mid-level management ranks, where you realize that you’re really following the vision of others. You have all these ideas about how you would do things differently.  And fortunately, there’s a pension reciprocity system in California, which made it something that was tenable for me.  I also had reassurance from the chief in San Francisco that I would be welcomed back if things didn’t work out in San Mateo.

Wexler:  You spent 20 years in San Mateo.  What were the big takeaways from that experience?

Chief Manheimer:  Well, San Francisco had a lot of political complexities and instability, so I was attracted to Sam Mateo’s city manager form of government that had a greater level of stability, politically.

Also, in a medium-size department like San Mateo, with about 100+ sworn, people are willing to innovate, and it’s much quicker to “turn the ship” and effectuate change. And if you come into a culture of innovation and professionalism, or you create that culture, there’s an expectation that you continue to innovate, because it really feeds upon itself. So San Mateo afforded me the opportunity to have this highly professional and stably managed city as a learning lab for all the things I wanted to do, like juvenile diversion and psychiatric response protocols.

Wexler:  You’ve had a great career. You enjoyed San Francisco, which was Chapter 1.  Then you had 20 years as chief in San Mateo, which was Chapter 2. Now you’re in Chapter 3, as interim chief in Oakland. When were you appointed, and what does this new job feel like?

Chief Manheimer:   I was appointed on April 6, which was about two weeks after the COVID “shelter in place” order took effect in the Bay Area.  I signed a six-month contract, and the Police Commission just voted to extend the contract for several more months while they search for a new chief.

Wexler:   What are some of the major differences between San Francisco and Oakland?

Chief Manheimer:   One major difference is that San Francisco has 10 precincts in a very small, densely populated area, and they’re able to mount up an incredible amount of staffing resources to address issues and problems. By contrast, Oakland basically has only two geographically spread-out stations, and they’re very thinly staffed at the patrol level, as they’ve chosen a different model with a large Ceasefire, intelligence-led component.

Wexler:    But crime in Oakland is substantially different from the crime in San Francisco, right?

Chief Manheimer:   Yes, they are drastically different today. But when I first started out in San Francisco, it had much more significant pockets of major crime than it does today.  So Oakland isn’t entirely unfamiliar to me. And until recently, Oakland was able to reduce violent crime by 50% in five years with violence interrupter strategies and other precision crime-fighting strategies that have worked very well. We have our own Crime Gun Intelligence Center and NIBIN tracing, and all of this was really working – until COVID and shelter-in-place happened. We’ve had major increases in homicides and shootings this year.

Wexler:   What is driving all that? What do your detectives tell you?

Chief Manheimer:   What’s driving most of it is there is no “business as usual.” Before COVID, each group or gang had its territory and its enterprise, whether it was drug dealing, human trafficking, underground casinos, or whatever it was. But since shelter-in-place took effect, no one has really had their own territory, and they’re all struggling now for some type of dominance.

And then you escalate the situation with what I call “no bail, no jail.”  We know who the main shooters are, but now, if we catch them illegally possessing a gun or transporting guns, and we don’t have a major felony to charge them with, we can’t arrest them, get them off the street, and hold them accountable, even if they have multiple priors. And we can’t arrest them to provide a cooling-off period if there’s a threat of possible retaliation between gangs.

Finally, couple that with the early releases of the formerly incarcerated persons from prison, without any reentry plan or resources to help them. No probation or parole tails, and no notifications to the locals. They were just sort of mass releases to ease the COVID pressure in the prisons.

And on top of all that, we have the unemployment and COVID recession.

Wexler:   Oakland has had a series of chiefs, and monitors who have been there for more than 10 years. Is the job any easier because you’re an interim chief, so you have a limited amount of time and you can try to do whatever you want?

Chief Manheimer:   I think it’s definitely easier as an interim if you’re a quick study. I can have a more independent voice, and my focus is on positioning the department well for the future. After the most recent chief was let go in a controversial and traumatic way, I see three goals: providing a transition and support for the department, improving the relationship between the department and the Police Commission, and effectuating compliance with the federal monitor.

Those three goals – setting aside COVID and high crime – are still my main guiding lights. And I think I’ve had some significant progress in those areas.

Wexler:   It seems to me that Oakland keeps searching for different models of oversight, with the Police Commission and the never-ending monitor.  Is there ever going to be a day when they just say, “We’re going to make the police chief responsible, and either they do their job or they don’t.” I mean, doesn’t this get a little exhausting?

Chief Manheimer:   When I came into the Oakland Police Department, I was told that actually there’s about 23 chiefs.  You have the Police Commission, which has authority over hiring, firing and policy. And that policy authority is huge; it actually reads “all customs, operations, and protocols of the Department.”

You then have the City Council involved in defunding and reimagining the Police Department. You have the mayor and the city administrator. You have the chief of the Department of Violence Prevention, you have the chief of the Housing Authority.  And finally you have the federal monitor, who sort of has veto power over everyone.

But I think this is a watershed moment for the OPD, in terms of whether or not this community decides whether to resource the department and also try to invest in other entities.  We’re doing a calls-for-service analysis and a workload analysis that will show how understaffed and under-resourced the police are. And in order to be effective in crime-fighting, we embrace reimagining. Certainly all over the country, police are the default for every failed system. I’m  optimistic that they will come to the realization that while there may be alternatives that are trauma-informed and effective, we will need to continue in Oakland to have the resources to fight violent crime and address the community issues.

Wexler:     Last question.  You sound amazingly optimistic and enthusiastic. Is that because you know you’ll be leaving someday? [laughter]

Chief Manheimer:    No, I’m having a ball.  Once you’ve been a chief for 20 years, you kind of have your chops. Because I’ve been to Harvard Executive Sessions and PERF and now Major Cities Chiefs, I’ve developed skills for firing on all cylinders and taking these challenges and synthesizing them. Something will be transformative in this moment that really does matter. What we’ve been doing isn’t working very well, right? We know that most officer-involved shootings involve persons with mental illness. We know that homelessness is being criminalized because other resources aren’t available. So if the policing profession can get rid of being the default for everything, and can get the right staffing and the right focus, this is a tremendous moment in time and an opportunity for us in policing.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.