San Francisco comes undone

In an unprecedented political blood bath, a grand jury indicts the police department's top brass. After a morning of chaos the police chief takes a mysterious medical leave, but turmoil reigns.

Published March 4, 2003 8:41PM (EST)

District Attorney Terence Hallinan looked pale and a little bit frail under the harsh white lights of TV cameras on Monday, as he tried to explain how a grand jury he'd asked to investigate a late-night brawl involving three cops wound up indicting 10 officers, including Chief of Police Earl Sanders and three of his top staff, who stand charged with obstruction of justice.

"This was not a witch hunt," a shaken but resolute Hallinan told reporters, against a backdrop of aged law books in the library of his ramshackle offices in the Hall of Justice. "This was an appropriate criminal investigation. There is nothing political about this case."

Hallinan will be repeating those words a lot in the weeks and months to come. The defense lawyer turned D.A., who has clashed regularly with the police throughout his stormy eight-year tenure, has faced charges that his investigation was a witch hunt since it began, shortly after two men complained that three off-duty cops assaulted them in the early morning hours of Nov. 20, and the SFPD botched the probe. (The men claimed the fight started after one of the cops demanded their bag of carryout steak fajitas.) One of the brawlers was Alex Fagan Jr., son of the SFPD's No. 2 official, Alex Fagan Sr., and critics charged that the department was covering up for one of its own. But Hallinan's archenemy, Mayor Willie Brown, denounced the D.A.'s investigation almost immediately, suggesting the brawl had been "mutual combat" unrelated to the cops' police duties, and insisting that Hallinan was grandstanding to make political points with a tough reelection campaign coming up in the year ahead.

By all accounts, the 66-year-old Hallinan was as shocked as anyone else by the grand jury's decision to indict the top SFPD brass on Friday -- and by the chaos that decision unleashed on the city in the days to come. For a little while on Monday, there was widespread confusion about who was the city's police chief. Rumors spread throughout the Hall of Justice that Sanders had resigned. Just before noon, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer tried to visit the chief in his office, but emerged looking confused. "The chief is not here right now, but I hope to talk to him later in the day," the flustered attorney general told reporters. At least two dozen camera people made the hall outside the chief's office a danger zone, as they whirled back and forth wildly trying to capture the chaos as indicted cops and their lawyers came and left the building. But still Sanders didn't show.

Then, at an emergency police commission meeting just after noon, chairwoman Connie Perry told the standing-room-only crowd that Sanders' command staff had agreed to suspensions -- the norm for officers indicted in criminal complaints, but a course Sanders had resisted -- but left the chief's own status ambiguous. Finally reporters confirmed that Sanders had not been suspended, but had taken a paid "medical leave." No information was made immediately available about the medical condition that led to such a step, though late in the day his attorney revealed Sanders' high blood pressure had been exacerbated by the stress of the indictment. Deputy Chief Heather Fong was promoted to the role of acting assistant chief, and she will run the department day to day while Sanders is on leave.

It was a great day for anyone who loves political theater, but hard to stomach if you love San Francisco. The last time a local police chief was indicted by a grand jury was 1906, when Jeremiah Dinan was accused of bribery and extortion. (The notorious political boss Abe Ruef, charged with graft, was held in the posh St. Francis Hotel because Dinan, himself a graft suspect, controlled the city jails.) The city's worst fissures have been exposed in the battle, revealing the frailties of crucial institutions like the police department and the district attorney's office, and the heavy-handed, crony-protecting instincts of the mayor. "I'm the commander in chief of this goddamn place, and there is no way the command staff of my Police Department is going to step down at this time," Brown said. "It's a matter of public safety."

In his two terms, Hallinan has faced repeated criticism for management chaos and his office's low conviction rates, and his feud with the mayor has made it hard to completely dismiss charges that his aims in the case are at least somewhat political. But the police department has looked a hell of a lot worse lately. While Sanders is a respected veteran remembered for his dogged work as a homicide investigator, he has been a low-key chief, presiding over a department increasingly perceived as lax in weeding out bad apples. A multipart San Francisco Chronicle investigation revealed on Sunday that several of the officers indicted by the grand jury have been promoted by the SFPD despite multiple complaints of brutality and abuse -- including Alex Fagan Sr., who was arrested by the California Highway Patrol in 1990 after he threatened officers during a confrontation. He received a 15-day suspension from the SFPD, but still managed to rise to assistant chief.

His son, Alex Fagan Jr., whose brawling triggered the current mess, had a staggering 16 violent encounters with suspects in a 13-month period -- and sent six of them to the hospital. In a memo leaked to the Chronicle, one of his supervisors warned the rookie cop was insubordinate and had anger management problems, and recommended that his probationary status be extended and that he get counseling. Yet most parties agree that on the night of the complaint against Fagan, the cops bungled their investigation in important ways -- failing to collect the clothing the suspects wore, to take an immediate blood-alcohol test, or to have the injured men who complained about the three cops identify them at the scene.

While testimony to the grand jury has not been made public, sources agree that the decisive witness was not a complaining civilian but a police officer, Lt. Joe Dutto, the veteran assigned to investigate the Fagan brawl who was transferred to another job midprobe. Dutto blasted the decision as political in a January press conference, charging that he was removed from his job by Deputy Chief David Robinson (with the apparent approval of Chief Sanders) in an effort to block his attempts to get to the bottom of the Fagan brawl and its alleged coverup. It's widely believed that Dutto's testimony led the grand jury to seek obstruction of justice charges against the top brass.

Hallinan's move has already accomplished the impossible: It's united the warring multicultural factions of the SFPD behind its top brass, and behind specious charges that the probe and indictments are racially motivated. Never mind that only two of 10 indicted officers are black; the presence of the city's first black police chief and his deputy David Robinson on the list was enough to convince local NAACP members that the move was "racist," and they denounced the indictments with a City Hall press conference on Friday. Then at Monday's Police Commission meeting, there was a true only-in-San Francisco moment, as the heads of the SFPD's often feuding black, Latino, Asian and gay officers groups followed the leader of the mainstream (read: white) Police Officers' Association, one after another supporting the chief and insisting that Hallinan's charges are political, and possibly racial.

The sight of the white POA and the black Officers for Justice making common cause behind a black police chief who's accused of protecting an Irish cop's son -- well, the ironies are rich, but maybe it's some crazy mixed-up sign of racial progress. More likely, though, it's a sign of what police critics say: In a crisis, there's no black or white or brown among cops, only blue.

And plenty of black activists have attacked the attempt to play the race card. Bay Area Police Watch founder Van Jones said such claims "undermine the racial justice struggle." Jones found irony in the fact that when Police Watch went to Sanders to protest racial profiling as well as brutality against black San Franciscans, the chief told them there was "no racial problem" with the SFPD -- but now Sanders' supporters are crying racism to defend him. "Terence Hallinan isn't a racist but a hero to bring this matter into public view," Jones said.

Is Hallinan a hero? It's too early to tell. The former amateur prizefighter, whose nickname is Kayo, looked a little punch-drunk on Monday, but so far his moves in the charged case, post-indictment, have been measured and solemn and sober. Critics may try to hammer him for letting the grand jury go beyond the scope of the indictments he was seeking. "I've worked with grand juries, and they're like a power tool -- you have to control them," says his election opponent Bill Fazio, a former prosecutor who is also representing one of the 10 indicted officers, Capt. Greg Corrales. "He clearly didn't go in there looking for this," Fazio added. But sources in the D.A.'s office say that while Hallinan didn't seek the indictments against the top brass, they were supported by convincing testimony, especially from Dutto. Hallinan's other political opponent, deputy city attorney Kamala Harris, didn't attend the day's circus, and could not be reached for comment.

Some of the indicted officers want Hallinan removed from the case, arguing that he's got a conflict of interest given his political battles with the department and the mayor. Attorney General Lockyer told reporters such a move was almost unheard of, but a judge will make a decision in 10 days. Fazio once tried to get Hallinan recused from a case, when Fazio was defending some associates of a man accused of murdering one of the D.A.'s best friends. "You've really got to show the D.A. has a stake in an outcome. If I couldn't do that when one of his best friends was involved ..." Fazio trails off.

Unbelievably, Hallinan got removed from that case in the end, after a judge denounced his "crazy" remarks about the trial. "You never know what Terence is going to do. But so far I'd have to say he's handled himself pretty well," said Fazio.

Indeed, the normally garrulous DA kept his counsel over the weekend, while Mayor Brown flailed about angrily. On Monday, after conferring with his deputies for days, Hallinan defended his office in a dignified press conference, and the mayor was mostly silent. But in response to charges that his defense of Sanders was typical of his tendency to protect his friends, no matter what, Brown told reporters: "I want that criticism forever."

Clearly, Round 1 in this battle goes to Kayo. But don't count the mayor out yet.

By Joan Walsh

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