City's Troubles Heard in SFPD's Blues

Times Staff Writer

In the azure glow of the neon martini glass in the window, Lance Cossui wiped the bar at the Blue Light Cafe. No, he said wearily, the notorious steak fajitas were only available after 5 p.m. on Taco Tuesdays. A customer looked up and snickered. The crowd was sparse, like the crowd down the block at the Bus Stop sports bar, where a TV truck idled like a big "Keep Out" sign. Like the crowds at too many places now in this punch-drunk city.

"I just wish this would be over," the restaurateur sighed.

But it's been one black eye after another lately in San Francisco, where this week, three years of tanking tourism and dot-bombed employment were capped with a police scandal that has reached all the way to the chief. Last week, a grand jury indicted three officers, the chief and six members of the command staff. On Tuesday, the 10 pleaded innocent to charges ranging from assault to obstructing the attendant investigation.

Legal experts and defense attorneys for the policemen immediately greeted the indictments with derision. The lawyers said the formal charges -- including several sections written by hand -- were flimsy, predicting they would easily be overturned.

At issue: An after-hours brawl on Union Street that allegedly began when the three off-duty cops -- one the son of an assistant chief -- left the Bus Stop and jumped one of Cossui's bartenders as he left work with a friend and a Taco Tuesday doggie bag of fajitas. That was in November. Since then, the litany of bad San Francisco news has expanded to include "bad cop," "bad cover-up," "bad mayor," "bad district attorney" and "bad political behavior" accusations.

Still, as stunning as it has been to see almost the entire top tier of a city police force sidelined in one fell swoop, the scandal has been viewed by many here as just the latest -- if most sensational -- in a series of hard knocks.

"After all this city has been through?" asked Mark Gray, a 45-year-old electrician smoking a cigarette in the doorway of the Bus Stop in the middle of a workday. "How much more do you think people can possibly care?"

The answer? Plenty.

This scandal seems, after all, to have touched every imaginable San Francisco flash point -- insider politics, civil rights, "old" versus "new" San Francisco, twentysomethings, race, even food. Though many of the details have been sealed, the triggering allegations have been front-page news for several months now:

On Nov. 20 about 2:30 a.m., a confrontation occurred on a trendy strip between Pacific Heights and the Marina District. On one side were Adam Snyder, 22, a bartender at the Blue Light, and Jade Santoro, 25, his friend. On the other were a troubled 23-year-old rookie cop named Alex Fagan Jr. and two other officers who had gone with him to the nearby Bus Stop after a police banquet -- at the House of Prime Rib, the local newspapers duly informed their restaurant-centric readers -- to celebrate the promotion of Fagan's father by the mayor to SFPD's second in command.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, which cited police records, Fagan Jr. had used force in at least 16 run-ins with suspects in a 13-month period, and had been ordered by the department to undergo anger management counseling before the confrontation.

Although the accused officers have not yet told their side of the story publicly, Snyder has said that as he and his friend walked down the street, Fagan and a second off-duty officer demanded his takeout steak fajitas and then attacked him when he refused as a third officer pulled up in his pickup truck.

Unaware that his attackers were off-duty policemen, Snyder called 911 on his cell phone. On-duty officers arrived, and Fagan Jr. and his friends were taken away before they could be identified by Snyder and Santoro, Snyder has said. Allegedly, the officers were allowed to change their clothes, wait four hours and drink plenty of water before they were tested for alcohol.

Still later, a lieutenant handling the investigation said his superiors had impeded his progress, prompting claims of a cover-up in the department, whose chief -- the first black police chief in the history of the city -- was an appointee of Mayor Willie Brown. A grand jury was convened by San Francisco Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan.

When it returned the indictments, the City Hall buzz turned to long-standing political grudges between Brown and the district attorney, who is up for reelection, even as the district attorney denied that politics were involved. Some even accused the white district attorney of acting out of racial animus, which he has denied.

By Tuesday, Chief Earl Sanders was out on medical leave and nearly all of his command staff had been suspended. The Chronicle, in an editorial, was calling Brown the "chief apologist" for the city's "stubborn police leadership."

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Examiner -- now a free tabloid owned by the Fang family, who are staunch Brown supporters -- was revisiting the arrests in 1993 and 2001 of Hallinan's own "trouble-prone" son. The Blue Light's fajitas were being plugged with every newscast of the story. ("Some advertisement," mourned Cossui.)

And Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer was reviewing evidence that Hallinan had abused his authority, even as he sought to disengage from the bare-knuckle mosh pit that is public service in San Francisco.

"I have determined not to get involved in San Francisco politics," Lockyer quipped this week. "I have friends, I have constituents on every side of this fight."

The same could be said by much of San Francisco. In fact, a degree of interest in the scandal arises from the ways in which it is both a big city and a small town. In districts where old-line families have lived for generations, the relationships among the various players have become their own conversation topic.

"Oh yeah, he was my neighbor's training officer," a West Portal mother said of the lieutenant who claimed superiors had stymied his investigation.

"Oh, she used to drive my mom home from work sometimes," said a Monterey Heights office worker about acting Assistant Chief Heather Fong, who is now handling the department's day-to-day operations.

"This is a very village-y place, with, like, one degree of separation," explained Nelson Mui, a San Francisco Magazine editor, "and everyone is wondering what direction this will snowball."

Sean White, a cashier at the Phoenix Bookstore in the upscale bohemian neighborhood of Noe Valley, also noted that people here have learned to allow for the posturing inherent in municipal conflict. "San Franciscans tend to understand that there are a lot of politics in this," he said, "and a lot of San Francisco politics is theater."

Even so, many noted, the scandal involves serious allegations and fallout.

"The police here are a real problem," said Steve Simitzis, 28, a computer programmer. "A couple months ago, outside a restaurant, I watched a police officer shoot a homeless guy who he said was coming at him with a stolen restaurant knife."

Civil rights groups characterized the indictments as a "cautionary tale" for cities that tolerate police cover-ups and stonewalling. Mark Schlosberg, the police practices attorney with American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said the case should be used "as an opportunity to strengthen accountability mechanisms in the department."

Police, meanwhile, worried about the impact on their workplace and public safety at a time of terrorist threat and impending war.

"Nothing of this magnitude has ever happened at this Police Department," said Sgt. Robert Kaprosch, a native San Franciscan, as he picked up his children from school on his afternoon off. "The concern is, if this doesn't get resolved quickly, how will they run the department? And what will happen if the country goes to war with Iraq?"

Others were concerned about a rush to judgment.

"I've heard the sentiment that this should have been handled sooner, better," said Dan Dougherty, bartender at Le Central, a downtown bistro where the mayor is a regular patron. "That they should have said, 'This kid's not for us.' And why didn't they? There's a system and everyone knows it. Old school."

But, he noted, the police have yet to tell their side of the story. "People said when the indictments came down that you can indict a ham sandwich. Well, in the next few weeks, we're going to be hearing more from that ham sandwich. I want to hear what it has to say when it finally talks back."

For all this, however, even interested San Franciscans looked tired when asked about the police scandal.

"Why us?" sighed Dougherty. "L.A. had that Rampart scandal, and it didn't bring down their police chief. The East Bay had those bad cops, the Riders, and it didn't bring down their police chief. San Jose -- you name the place, it didn't come to this. But here in San Francisco, I don't know. It just isn't our year."

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