S.F. Police Chief Recounts ‘the Worst Day’ of His Life

Times Staff Writers

When a young man from Texas was being sworn in as one of San Francisco’s first black police officers, Chief Thomas Cahill pinned on his badge and asked in an Irish brogue: “Prentice Sanders, what do you want to bring to the Police Department? ... What do you want to do?”

The rookie responded, “I want to be a homicide detective. After that, I would like your job.”

Thirty-nine years later, Prentice Earl Sanders got his wish. But within six months, that dream was dashed. On what he says was the worst day of his life, Police Chief Sanders got a phone call at home saying he had been indicted.


On Wednesday, the day after that conspiracy charge was dismissed, the chief talked for the first time about a scandal that has consumed the city and damaged not only his reputation, but also that of his department.

In a two-hour interview, Sanders defended his department’s investigation of a brawl that involved the son of his assistant chief.

Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan has likened the department’s investigation of the brawl to the Watergate cover-up. But Sanders said: “There was nothing wrong with that investigation. Absolutely nothing.”

And he recalled his thoughts on the morning he was told that he would be arrested.

“It was, well, like I’m going to wake up from this; this is a crazy nightmare,” Sanders said. “Why am I getting indicted? For what? By whom? Why?”

The investigator told him he had to surrender in about an hour. “These people are going to come down here and they’re going to arrest me, the chief of police,” he said he thought. “I don’t know why or for what ....I said, ‘Am I still in America?’ ”

Within hours, an angry and humiliated Sanders was fingerprinted and booked, and had his mug shot taken. He learned that he faced conspiracy charges in an alleged police cover-up of a brawl involving three off-duty officers. And to make matters worse, his son, a lawyer, was looking on.


Sanders characterizes the charges against him and his command staff as tantamount to a “terrorist attack” because he says they hit so unexpectedly, unfairly and with so much devastation.

“I’ve been shot at. I’ve heard a bullet go close enough to my ear to hear it sing,” he said in an interview in his son’s downtown office.

“I’ve had people try to stab me, hit me in the head with baseball bats and other objects. But I’ve never been Sunday punched.... It was a terrible feeling, and it still is. It still is.”

The 65-year-old chief has been on medical leave for heart problems and high blood pressure. The stress, he said, was so great that his doctor believes he may have suffered a stroke since his indictment.

However, Sanders vowed to return to the command of the 2,250-member force if his doctors approved. The last time he had a serious medical problem, he was back at work within three months, he said. “I am under treatment now, and I will return to work,” he said. “This is what I do.”

The scandal erupted over a fight Nov. 20. Within days, news accounts and the district attorney were suggesting that police had mishandled the affair.


The three off-duty officers involved were not subjected to a street-side identification. At the station house, they were not separated and were allowed to keep their cell phones. Neither were they required to submit to a blood alcohol test for criminal investigators, although internal affairs investigators collected urine samples for their separate investigation.

On Feb. 27, a grand jury, citing what it considered irregularities in the investigation, indicted Sanders and six supervisors on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice. The grand jury also charged three rookie officers with assault and battery.

Sanders, a career cop with a homicide detective’s eye for detail, is a department veteran who spent more than two decades investigating killings and won awards for catching dangerous criminals. He has lectured and taught courses on criminal justice.

He founded a police association that won a legal fight to compel the department to hire women and more minorities. And he became the first African American chief in the Police Department’s 153-year history.

Humble Beginnings

Born in Nacogdoches, Texas, the son of a millworker, Sanders was raised by his mother and stepfather after his parents split up. On her deathbed, he promised to continue the education he started in a three-room, blacks-only schoolhouse.

In the early 1950s, at the age of 14, Sanders came alone to San Francisco with $35 and a suitcase. He lived in a rooming house and worked nights washing dishes at the Fairmont Hotel. Days, he attended high school and played football. His coach and a guidance counselor who caught him forging absentee notes became surrogate parents. Later, after a stint in the military, he took the police examination almost on a lark and finished among the top 10.


As a young police officer, Sanders remained absorbed in his education. He sometimes studied and wrote papers while on stakeouts. He eventually would earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public administration of justice.

Sanders achieved his first major career goal in 1971, six years after joining the department. He became a homicide detective who would work more than 300 cases, including the infamous Zebra murders that terrorized the city.

He achieved his second career goal in July when Mayor Willie Brown promoted him from assistant chief to the top job.

Within months came the biggest challenge of his career. Hours after the arrests of the three officers for allegedly attacking two civilians, he walked into the office of his top aide, Assistant Chief Alex Fagan, the father of one of the arrested policemen.

Fagan said, “Chief, I’m really sorry. I’ve recused myself,” Sanders recounted.

“Well, that’s fine. You stay out of this,” Sanders said he told him.

Sanders said the investigation was assigned to the department’s General Works Detail, just like any other. “It was the normal assignment,” he said.

Questions Raised

In the weeks after the incident, questions were raised about whether the department protected its own. The district attorney and others criticized the department for what they called a variety of irregularities.


The chief said that he disagrees with the criticisms and that none of the alleged deficiencies add up to criminal conduct.

The sobriety evidence collected by internal affairs cannot legally be shared with the district attorney, he said, a position Hallinan disputes. A street-side lineup was not used, but that was not a problem, he said, because the procedure suggests guilt for any suspect, not just off-duty police officers.

The police investigation produced a file that was thicker than most of the murder case files he worked on, he said. “We did everything we could to accommodate what the district attorney wanted,” Sanders said.

He attributed the indictment of the command staff to unspecified “politics” inside and outside the department. And he agreed with the mayor and district attorney that criminal investigations of police officers -- at least politically sensitive ones -- should be referred in the future to an independent agency.

He has formally asked state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer to intervene in the present case.

The morning of Feb. 28 brought nothing but surprises. Minutes after hearing about his indictment, Sanders was on the telephone calling his deputy chiefs.

“I said, ‘You get over here,’ ” he recalled. “Then they started showing up with indictments. They said, ‘I got an indictment too, Chief.’ I said, ‘What?’ And then I knew something is really, really out of whack.”


After making calls to ensure that the department was in good hands, Sanders said, he decided that he would not be arrested or go through an orchestrated surrender.

“I’m not going to have that level of indignity and have me marched in front of my people and the cameras,” he said. “We may not negotiate. But I’m not going to surrender.”

Sanders was spirited through a back entrance to the county jail, but still had to go through the booking procedures like everyone else charged with a crime.

The hardest part, he said, was that his young grandson was aware of his public disgrace. For Black History Month, the boy was assigned to write about his hero, and he had chosen his grandfather.

Said Sanders: “That hurt the most.”

But “even with all of this, all of the worst negativism that could even be dreamed of, this department has not missed a beat,” he said. “We have continued our service and will continue our service. We will overcome.”