Skip to main content

What’s really behind the mayor’s spat with her appointee? Influence over SFPD’s future leadership

Mayor London Breed, left, listens to SFPD Chief Bill Scott at a press conference on Jan. 25, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

When one of Mayor London Breed’s political appointees crossed her last week, she publicly lashed out at him for failing to help elect a Police Commission leader who could be a voice for the Chinese community.

But privately, she seemed more concerned about another issue entirely.

In a phone call with her appointee, Max Carter-Oberstone, the mayor said she would need his support on the Police Commission if she had to make a leadership change at the San Francisco Police Department.

Carter-Oberstone took that to mean she was considering firing SFPD Chief Bill Scott, and would need the commission’s help anointing a replacement. While the mayor can fire Scott on her own, she must choose a successor from candidates selected by the seven-member commission.

“It felt like it was imminent,” Carter-Oberstone told The Standard Friday in an exclusive interview. “I got the sense that this was something that needed to happen, that this was on the top of the agenda.”

While Carter-Oberstone is confident in what Breed told him, the Mayor’s Office says she is not considering replacing Scott. The chief also told The Standard in a phone call that he thinks his job is secure.

Carter-Oberstone is speaking out after tensions between him and the mayor boiled over last week with Breed calling him a liar

At issue is the swing vote Carter-Oberstone cast to elect a Board of Supervisors appointee as president of the Police Commission over Larry Yee, whom Breed named to the commission and wanted as its leader.

Breed called Carter-Oberstone dishonest over his vote, saying he had indicated his support for Yee. But Carter-Oberstone denied that claim and said he never pledged support for Yee to anyone from the Mayor’s Office.

The spat offered a glimpse into the influence Breed exerts over her appointees to one of the most important commissions at City Hall. But it wasn’t clear just how much pressure Breed applied—until now.

In addition to Carter-Oberstone speaking out, The Standard obtained a trove of text messages and emails between him and the Mayor’s Office that reveal multiple attempts by her administration to influence him.

The documents, which came to light through a public records request, include an undated resignation letter that Carter-Oberstone said the Mayor’s Office had him sign as a condition of his reappointment this past spring.

“Thanks for the open conversation today,” Tyra Fennell, a senior staffer for Breed, wrote to Carter-Oberstone in April. “Please find the DRAFT letter of resignation. Please sign, amend if needed and return.”

A spokesperson for Breed said Carter-Oberstone is not the only mayoral appointee to a city commission who has submitted a draft resignation letter, but did not provide further information about how common the practice is.

The Mayor’s Office says such letters are only to be used in the “most extreme circumstances.” 

Illustration by Lu Chen/The Standard

Carter-Oberstone rescinded the letter at the beginning of August, on the same day that another mayoral staffer, Andres Power, apparently pressured the commissioner to take a public position that he disagreed with.

Carter-Oberstone is the driving force behind a hotly contested proposal that would ban officers from making certain traffic stops.

He told The Standard that Power wanted him to call for a delay of the working group meetings on the proposal, citing the need for more community input.

“He said that he wanted me to make an impassioned speech at the very beginning of the meeting to basically claim that the working group process was totally illegitimate,” Carter-Oberstone said.

That conversation is corroborated by texts included in the newly unearthed documents, in which Carter-Oberstone told Power he would not comply.

Carter-Oberstone also said Power threatened him with “serious consequences” if he did not listen—a claim the Mayor’s Office denies.

While Carter-Oberstone says the Mayor’s Office wanted to use community concerns as an excuse to derail the process, the Mayor’s Office accuses Carter-Oberstone of not listening to the community.

Breed’s spokesperson says the office did ask him to delay the working group to hear from community members first.

The Fate of the Chief

Carter-Oberstone said the mayor indicated to him on two occasions that she was considering making a leadership change at SFPD.

Carter-Oberstone said the mayor initially raised the issue in an April 19 meeting when he joined Breed to discuss his reappointment. He was in the process of finishing out the tail end of his predecessor’s term.

When the mayor first told him she needed his support to change leadership at the department, he interpreted that to mean that he should not back a vote by the Police Commission to fire the chief without checking in with her office.

But Carter-Oberstone said the mayor corrected him.

“No, no, that’s not what I’m saying,” Breed said, according to Carter-Oberstone. “I’m saying I might need to remove the chief—and if that happens, I’m going to need your help in doing that.”

The issue came up again last Wednesday when Carter-Oberstone called the Mayor’s Office to let them know he was supporting Cindy Elias as Police Commission president, he said.

First Sean Elsbernd, the mayor’s chief of staff, brought it up and said electing Elias would obstruct their plans, according to Carter-Oberstone.

Then the mayor herself called, he said.

“She was very upset,” Carter-Oberstone said. “The first thing she went to was that she had told me that she would need my help to change leadership at the department and how this would not be possible with Cindy in place.”

When Breed asked him to not support Elias, Carter-Oberstone says he declined.

That conversation apparently spurred Breed to blast Carter-Oberstone at a Chinese press event later in the week, where she also accused the commission of focusing on reform at the expense of public safety.

That message troubled Carter-Oberstone.

“The mayor is pushing this narrative: we can either protect the Asian community from hate-based crime or we can do police reform,” he told The Standard. “Those things are not in tension.”

Jeff Cretan, Breed’s spokesperson, confirmed that both Breed and Elsbernd raised the issue of SFPD leadership with Carter-Oberstone.

But Cretan said the mayor is not considering firing Scott.

“What they both said was that if they ever did need to make a leadership change, which of course can happen, they would need his help,” Cretan said. “But again, that’s not under consideration.”

Cretan said Breed and Elsbernd raised the issue because “that’s the role of the commission.” As a matter of course, Breed discusses potential leadership changes with her appointees across various commissions, he said.

“What if Chief Scott decided tomorrow to leave for another city?” Cretan said. “We would need to make a leadership change. It’s one of the primary roles of the commission.”

Reached by phone, Scott told The Standard that he had not heard anything from the mayor about her considering replacing him despite having a candid relationship with Breed and speaking with her regularly.

“I’m certain that if she was going to do that, that I would know about it,” the chief said. “I’m certain about that.”

Asked whether Breed could be preparing for a leadership change because Scott planned to retire soon, he indicated otherwise.

“I’ve been here for almost six years, and that’s a good run for a police chief in this city,” Scott said. “I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done. But I’ve still got a little bit of gas in the tank.”