S.F. Mayor Says City Entering ‘Uncharted Waters’

Times Staff Writers

The criminal indictment of the police chief and three of his top brass has cast this city into what Mayor Willie Brown warned are “uncharted waters,” as he sought to reassure the public and the state’s chief law enforcement officer that San Francisco still has a functioning Police Department.

Chief Earl Sanders and the assistants surrendered Friday to sheriff’s deputies and were booked at the county jail after their surprise grand jury indictments on charges that they conspired to cover up a brawl involving three off-duty officers.

In this politically fractured city, everyone from county supervisors and ex-police chiefs to civil rights leaders and average citizens now wonder whether an indicted police chief can still command a shellshocked police force of 2,300 officers.

The official word so far, a day after the indictments became public, is that Sanders and his commanders will remain in place, at least until Monday, when the Police Commission meets to weigh allegations against them and decide whether they should remain on the job.


The often irascible Brown scrambled to respond to Friday’s events, which threatened to paralyze City Hall, even in a town that has been accustomed to bare-knuckles politics.

Above a banner front page headline in Saturday’s San Francisco Chronicle, the mayor was quoted as asserting his authority: “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. It’s a matter of public safety.”

In a city where politics is regular breakfast conversation, talk of the indictments spilled over to lunch and dinner. From bus stops to malls, seemingly everyone had an opinion about the controversy, which filled the airwaves, from talk shows to news updates, throughout the day.

Early Friday, after Brown learned of the indictments, he called state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer to alert him to what was unfolding.

“Lockyer’s primary concern was making sure that San Francisco had a functioning Police Department,” said Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for the attorney general. “He was assured by Willie ... that things would be OK.”

On Saturday, attorneys representing the four top police officials and six other indicted officers and supervisors huddled in a strategy session, while Brown visited several district police stations to rally the spirits of rank-and-file officers.

Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan said in an interview with The Times that -- although his office presented evidence to the grand jury -- he was surprised about the breadth of the indictment.

Hallinan said Saturday that he “felt like the bombardier on the Enola Gay,” referring to the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. “It’s about what I felt. I was shocked to see that.”

The district attorney said he could not go into details of the case, but he predicted that the release of the grand jury transcripts in the coming weeks will answer most of the questions from the public and the city’s political leadership. Then, Hallinan said, “everyone will understand what happened.”

Meanwhile, the police chief went on the attack against Hallinan, asking the attorney general’s office to examine whether the local prosecutor abused his discretion in his office’s handling of the San Francisco County Grand Jury.

Sanders’ attorneys provided voluminous documents that they contend show that the charges are baseless and “politically motivated,” Barankin said.

Brown and Hallinan are both liberal Democrats, but in recent years have clashed over issues ranging from crime to personal style. The current crisis has only escalated those animosities. It also has brought to the surface deeply rooted racial tensions that have persisted even under Sanders, who became the city’s first black chief when he was appointed last year by Brown.

The local NAACP and a minority police officers association defended Sanders.

The Rev. Amos Brown, a former supervisor and president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People’s local chapter, warned that the group would use both peaceful protest and legal action to save the jobs of Sanders and his racially diverse command staff.

“We are outraged,” said Julian Hill, president of Officers for Justice, which Sanders helped found decades ago when he was coming up through the department. “This will not go unchallenged.”

Indicted along with Sanders was Alex Fagan Sr., a 30-year police veteran and the department’s No. 2 man, whose son is one of three officers involved in the brawl that triggered the controversy.

Also indicted were Deputy Chief Greg Suhr, who oversees police field operations; Deputy Chief David Robinson, who runs the investigations bureau; Capt. Greg Corrales; Lt. Edmund Cota; and Sgt. John Syme. All were charged with one count each of conspiring to obstruct justice.

The three officers involved in the street fight were indicted on charges of felony assault and battery.

Alex Fagan Jr., David Lee and Matthew Tonsing allegedly accosted two men outside a bar on the morning of Nov. 20 and demanded that they turn over a take-home bag of fast food. When the men refused, the off-duty officers allegedly beat them up.

The grand jury heard from 42 witnesses, including a police lieutenant who headed the department’s investigation. Lt. Joe Dutto has publicly alleged that police officials made it difficult to conduct his probe and eventually reassigned him.

While black officers slammed the indictments, police critics in the African American community praised them.

“This is not an issue of racism of the district attorney,” said Van Jones, an attorney at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco. “Terence Hallinan is not a racist. He is a hero. We are proud that Terrence Hallinan ... stood up against corruption.”

On Saturday, San Francisco residents were divided over the crisis. Some said Sanders and his top staff should step down until the investigation is completed.

“If they tried to cover it up, they should be fired for it, but they won’t,” said Jason Yen, a 23-year-old security guard. Referring to the police chief, he added: “He’s too politically connected.”

But Rich Haggerman, a local Teamster, expressed anger at Hallinan’s actions. “They ought to get rid of him,” he said. “He’s an idiot.”

The district attorney, who will face a reelection battle in November, rejected charges that he used the indictments for political gain. “The culprits paint it as politics,” he said. “It has nothing to do with politics.... The cover-up was like Watergate. [It] became bigger than life.”

Hallinan said most district attorneys in his position would have avoided the issue of a possible police cover-up and settled for charges against the three street officers.

“That was definitely a hot potato, and most D.A.s don’t like a hot potato. Nor do politicians nine months away from reelection,” he said of the indictments against the top brass. “I did it because that’s my job.”

Bill Fazio, an attorney who represents Capt. Corrales, is a former prosecutor who is running against Hallinan in November. He said his own grand jury experience made him question Hallinan’s assertion that he was surprised by Sanders’ indictment.

“When I got before the grand jury, I knew exactly what I wanted and who the target was,” he said. “It appears that the grand jury [in this case] was allowed to run wild.”

Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a mayoral candidate, said he thought Sanders should step down as chief, at least for now. “It’s a public relations nightmare,” he said of having an indicted chief on the job. “He’s operating under a cloud.”


Times correspondents Carol Pogash and Imran Vittachi contributed to this report.