In a sweeping rearrangement of the highest ranks of the Police Department here Monday, the indicted police chief abruptly took a medical leave, while six members of his command staff agreed to step aside during an investigation into whether they conspired to cover up a brawl involving three off-duty officers.
Rapidly unfolding developments left the command of the 2,300-member police department in disarray through much of the day. Some officials at headquarters and the Police Commission insisted that Chief Earl Sanders remained in charge, even as Mayor Willie Brown's office and the chief's attorney said he was too ill to run the department.
By evening, however, the mayor's office said that, at Brown's request, Sanders had appointed Deputy Chief Heather Fong as his top assistant and placed her in charge of the department during his leave. Fong is a 25-year veteran and the department's highest-ranking Asian.
Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan, meanwhile, insisted Monday that his office will go ahead with prosecutions of the three patrolmen who allegedly started the brawl in November and of the seven ranking officers charged with conspiring to cover it up.
The 65-year-old Sanders on Sunday evening suffered an aggravation of existing health problems, said his attorney, John Burris. After consulting his doctors, the chief chose an immediate medical leave. The chief was resting at home on Monday and did not report to work, Burris said.
"He's not doing well. I talked with his son today. I don't anticipate him handling any police matters in the very near future," said Burris of his client, who reportedly has had heart problems in the past. "Hopefully his condition won't be so severe" that it will inhibit his defense.
Sanders was allegedly so ill that he canceled a meeting with Brown but spoke to the mayor by telephone. During that conversation, the chief agreed to make Fong his second in command and place her in charge, said P.J. Johnston, a spokesman for the mayor.
Even as police officials sought to reassure the public that their police force was still functioning on the street, the department's grim headquarters inside the city's Hall of Justice was somber and confused.
"Earl Sanders is in charge," Deputy Chief of Special Operations Richard Bruce said at midafternoon. "We are not aware" that Sanders is taking medical leave, Bruce said. "He is not here now."
Added the department spokesman, Sgt. Neville Gittens: "Everything is hour by hour."
At a midday meeting, the city's Police Commission did not signal the chief's medical status. Instead, the panel announced that "members of the command staff have offered to step aside and go on leave during the pendency of the criminal proceedings," according to a statement. "At this time, Chief Sanders and Acting Chief Fong remain in day-to-day command of the department."
At a news conference Monday, Hallinan said the law prevented him from describing the indictments returned by a San Francisco grand jury last week. Named were the three officers -- including the son of the department's assistant chief -- who were alleged to have beaten two men after the two refused to give up a bag of fast food.
No one, including Hallinan, has detailed precisely what the command officers did to warrant conspiracy charges, but a lieutenant who once headed the probe has said publicly that the department impeded his progress.
"These specific allegations of assaults by off-duty police officers and a subsequent cover-up by high ranking police command officers are extremely distressing," Hallinan said. "They strike at the heart of our civil liberties.... I understand the public's feelings of shock, outrage, anger and apprehension."
State Weighs In
State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who also appeared at the news conference, said his office theoretically could take over prosecution of the case, if evidence arises that Hallinan has a conflict of interest or if the district attorney abused his power. Lockyer acknowledged that his office has been reviewing evidence from Sanders that Hallinan abused his authority, but he said a state takeover of local prosecution would be highly unusual. As Lockyer sidestepped questions about political grudges between Hallinan and Brown that might have figured in the case, he quipped: "I have determined not to get involved in San Francisco politics. I have friends, I have constituents, on every side of this fight."
In an interview, Burris said it doesn't matter who prosecutes his client. "It's not going to make the indictment go away," he said, adding of Sanders: "I feel comfortable that, at the end of the day, he'll be exonerated."
Burris criticized Hallinan for not calling Sanders before the grand jury to answer accusations about his conduct.
"If real issues arose concerning how he conducted himself," Burris said, "it seems he should have been afforded the opportunity to offer an explanation."
Hallinan, an often combative prosecutor who campaigned as "America's most progressive district attorney," dismissed questions that suggested the charges were an aggressive response to his rocky relationships with both the mayor, who appointed Sanders, and the Police Department itself.
"This is my job and because the people who have been charged are anxious to get rid of our office and claim politics, I don't see any reason to remove myself," he said. "This is not a political case. This is a criminal case."
All 10 defendants are scheduled to be arraigned today in Superior Court and the indictments will be unsealed. Detailed grand jury transcripts could be available as early as Monday evening, prosecutors said.
Bill Fazio, attorney for indicted Capt. Greg Corrales, explained why his client and the others decided to step aside during the prosecutions.
"They realized it would be difficult to function ... with this hanging over their heads," Fazio said, "and they felt that if the three officers on the street force were going to be suspended, they should too. What's good for the patrolmen is good for the command staff."
Hallinan dismissed allegations by critics that he had allowed the grand jury to get out of control in indicting the top police officials. After 11 days of testimony and 42 witnesses, the jurors independently decided which charges would be appropriate, the district attorney said.
He characterized the San Francisco grand jury as "probably the most informed, intelligent group of people you're going to find anywhere in the world."
For the second time in four days, the Police Commission gathered to decide whether Sanders should stay on the job. But the panel has been unable to get access to the indictments and reached no decision. It scheduled yet another meeting for Wednesday evening.
At Monday's commission meeting, Sanders was nowhere to be seen as Fong sat at a table near the five-member panel. She looked on as audience members took the podium to commend indicted command staff members for stepping aside while they encouraged the community to let the legal process unfold.
However, when critics later learned that Sanders had not joined the others in temporarily relinquishing his job, they reacted with anger.
"Chief Sanders should have been the first person to step aside," said Van Jones, an attorney with Police Watch. "The officers under him have more courage.... He should not weasel out with a medical leave. He would have been a hero today; instead he is a coward."
Those sentiments were echoed elsewhere in the city Monday. Cab driver Dave Schneider said he was disappointed that Sanders did not cite the criminal proceedings and step down.
"There's an old-boy network in San Francisco, and he was part of that," said the 57-year-old, who says he once practiced law in Illinois. "It's kind of sad. The chief should step down so there's not even a hint of impropriety."
As deputy chief, Fong has been in charge of administration, which includes the fiscal division, support services, planning and training. Mayor Brown on Monday expressed confidence in Fong. "The mayor believes she is capable of stepping into this position," said spokesman Johnston.
Rank-and-file officers agreed. "She is one of the first women in the department and moved through the ranks," said Sgt. Inspector Lea Militello of the San Francisco police officers' Pride Alliance, which represent gay officers. "She is a very even-tempered, methodical person who works her way through things."
Capt. Thomas O'Neill, who works under Fong, said that despite the controversy over the indictments, the department will continue to operate effectively. "This is not a happy time," he said, adding that the Police Department "is a paramilitary organization and is designed to go on uninterrupted with the loss of anyone."