After just 44 days on the job, Police Chief Richard Hongisto was fired Friday for allegedly ordering three police officers to confiscate copies of a gay newspaper that mocked his handling of protests over the verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case.
The San Francisco Police Commission, at an extraordinary emergency meeting, voted unanimously to dismiss the chief after concluding that he had abused his authority by trying to suppress the small biweekly tabloid.
“We believe the chief exercised poor judgment and abused his power in this incident,” said commission Chairman Harry Low, a former state appeals court judge. “His explanation of this incident is difficult for this commission to accept in light of the evidence.”
Hongisto recently bragged that he was a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, but he came under harsh criticism from civil libertarians for conducting mass arrests of demonstrators who were peacefully protesting the verdicts.
Mayor Frank Jordan, who named Hongisto to the post, defended the former chief’s record--particularly his ability to halt looting in San Francisco--and said he was surprised and saddened by the commission’s decision to fire him.
Standing on the steps of police headquarters, Hongisto told reporters he had done nothing wrong and was “dumbfounded” by his dismissal.
“I’m completely bewildered,” he said. “I was doing a very good job as police chief of San Francisco. I’ve committed no crimes. I’ve done nothing unethical, in my opinion, or improper.”
Hongisto, a fixture in local politics who ran against Jordan for mayor last year, criticized the commission for refusing to let him resign, thereby depriving him of a substantial city pension. “I begged the Police Commission to let me have one day to resign,” he said.
Hongisto’s dismissal, coming just a week after copies of the San Francisco Bay Times were allegedly seized from news racks by three police officers, provides a sharp contrast to Los Angeles, where city officials have been powerless to remove Chief Daryl F. Gates despite widespread dissatisfaction with his performance.
“We believe a chief of police for San Francisco is held to a high standard of conduct and must display a high degree of integrity,” Low said in announcing the commission’s decision to fire Hongisto.
But Hongisto said he deserves credit for preventing the kind of destructive riots that swept Los Angeles and said: “People in Los Angeles must think we’re nuts up here.”
The commission would not release details of the case against Hongisto, but city sources said it rested primarily on the testimony of one vice officer, Gary Delagnes, who had talked with the chief by telephone on May 7 about the Bay Times.
According to one version of the conversation, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Hongisto raised the subject of the free, 40,000-circulation tabloid and said its most recent issue might upset some members of the police force.
The Bay Times, which is aimed at the gay and lesbian community, carried on its cover a suggestive caricature of Hongisto with a police baton between his legs and the headline: “Dick’s Cool New Tool: Martial Law.”
Delagnes reportedly told the chief not to worry because few officers would read the paper.
“No, look, you’re missing the point,” Hongisto allegedly replied. “Let’s say a bunch of cops from the Mission (District) went out and cleared out those racks. Then no one would be upset.”
“Oh. You want me to clear out the racks?” Delagnes reportedly said.
“Now you get it,” Hongisto allegedly replied.
In the early hours of May 8, a witness reported seeing three men in suits loading copies of the Bay Times from a news rack into the trunk of a government car filled with papers.
This week, word of the alleged seizure of the papers quickly spread within the department and was reported to Jordan, who ordered the Police Commission to investigate, and to Dist. Atty. Arlo Smith, who launched an inquiry. By Tuesday, more than 2,100 copies of the Bay Times turned up in the evidence room at the city’s main police station, reportedly after being taken from the home of a police officer.
Among the evidence presented to the commission were the transcripts of at least two tape-recorded conversations involving members of the police force.
At his news conference, Hongisto put a different spin on the series of events. He said he called Delagnes, vice president of the Police Officers Assn., and suggested that the paper be distributed to members of the police force.
“I never in any way ordered the confiscation of 2,000 newspapers for destruction or anything of that sort,” he said. “I suppose that what transpired was that, once I suggested they take a look at the newspaper, the idea grew in their minds to larger proportions and they got carried away by the act.”
The Police Commission, which is appointed by the mayor but has the power to fire the police chief, began its hearing late Thursday afternoon and met behind closed doors for more than eight hours, announcing its decision after 2:30 a.m. Friday.
Before making their action public, all of the commissioners talked individually with Jordan by telephone and discussed their findings with him.
“We believe the chief initiated a conversation and suggested to his subordinate, and thus conveyed to that subordinate, that large quantities of newspapers should be collected,” the commission concluded. “Moreover, even accepting the evidence in the light most favorable to Chief Hongisto, the evidence casts serious doubts on his judgment in this matter.”
The 55-year-old Hongisto’s tenure as San Francisco’s top cop was even shorter than his 1978 stay in Cleveland, where he was police chief for 100 days before losing his job in a clash with then-Mayor Dennis Kucinich. After that, he served as director of the New York state prison system for 10 months, but lost that job when the New York Legislature refused to confirm his appointment.
Hongisto began his career as a police officer in 1960, working for a decade for the San Francisco Police Department and then briefly as a news reporter for a local public television station.
He won election as sheriff in 1971, running as a liberal and an early gay rights advocate. He later was elected as a city supervisor and, most recently, as assessor--a $114,500-a-year job he gave up to become police chief.
During two decades in public office, Hongisto had gained a reputation as a maverick and, in some circles, an opportunist. But he also had developed a loyal following among liberals and gay activists who were greatly disturbed by his heavy-handed tactics as police chief.
“Since Dick Hongisto has been chief of police he has been an absolutely different person,” said Supervisor Angela Alioto, a longtime ally. “It’s absolutely beyond me.”
The firing of Hongisto is the most serious political setback to date for Jordan, who became mayor four months ago. His Administration, buffeted over a series of other controversial appointments, had been off to a rocky start and some had even talked of a recall drive.
In fact, the brightest spot had been Hongisto’s quick control of the downtown looting, which helped solidify the conservative base of Jordan, a former police chief.
Jordan and the commission selected Deputy Chief Tom Murphy to serve as acting chief while the city searches for a new chief. “I think the department is stunned, as the community is stunned, by the events of the past few days,” Murphy said.