The world of the San Francisco Police Department turns upside down

I’ve been following with puzzlement the case of San Francisco Police Chief Earl Sanders and several of his top aides, indicted for allegedly covering up the unprovoked beating of a bartender by a three drunken off-duty cops, one of whom was the son of the departments’s #2.

Reporters for theLos Angeles Times seem to have decided, based on what it’s hard to tell, that this is all a political stunt by San Francisco D.A. Terence Hallinan. There’s never been much love lost between Hallinan, a flamboyant former defense attorney, and the police department, or for that matter between Hallinan and the career prosecutors who work for him. That Hallinan, re-elected by a whisker four years ago and up again this fall, might be capable of a grandstand play certainly isn’t far-fetched. And he hasn’t helped his credibility by asserting that the grand jury had indicted Sanders and the rest of the top brass on its own initiative, when his office was only going for indictments lower down. That might even be true, but if true it would be somewhere between very unusual and utterly unprecedented. Just to make things interesting, Bill Fazio, who nearly defeated Hallinan’s re-election effort four years ago and is running against him again in November, is the defense attorney for one of the indicted members of the chain of command.

On the other hand, nothing about the history of the SFPD makes a cover-up of police brutality by the top brass to protect the son of one of them seem at all unlikely. Alex Fagan, Jr., the rookie cop charged as the ringleader in the beating, has an astonishing record of hurting people: 16 violent encounters, including six leading to hospitalization, in 13 months. And the SF Chronicle details the lengths to which someone in SFPD went to cover up the case, including firing the internal investigator when he refused to share his case file with someone close to the key suspect’s father. The fact that as of the time of the indictment the younger Fagan was still on active duty suggests that the SFPD had been borrowing management practices from the Archdiocese of Boston.

San Francisco’s African-American establishment, including the head of the NAACP and the organization representing black police officers, seems to be rallying around the city’s first black police chief, appointed by the city’s first black mayor, on the theory that the indictments are racially motivated. (The apparent lead perpetrator, and seven of the nine others indicted, are white, like the complainants.)

The mayor, Willie Brown, responded to charges that his police chief had covered up an act of brutality by attacking the prosecutor. The mayor’s story is that the assault, described by the victims as starting when the off-duty cops demanded that they hand over a bag of take-out steak fajitas they had just bought, was just a routine fistfight: “mutual combat.” That would be easier to credit if the complainant hadn’t called 911 on his cell phone while the assault was taking place. Chief Sanders, after a couple of days of insisting that he would stay in office while under felony indictment — which with the backing of the Mayor and his tame Police Commission he could have done — today announced that he was taking “medical leave” and that everyone else indicted was being suspended from duty.

Faced with a clash between two of my dearly-held prejudices — that anything Terence Hallinan does is likely to be bad for the cause of law and order, and that anything done by Willie Brown or any of his friends is almost certainly crooked — I’m going to let the record of the SFPD, and what seem to be the absolutely damning facts of the case, break the tie. My bet is that the indictments will turn out to be well-supported by the facts, and that Hallinan will turn out to have done something both courageous and useful in taking on the “blue wall of silence” that still protects brutal cops.

What’s scary is not that Hallinan did it, but that no District Attorney less wild and irresponsible than Hallinan would have dared to do it. On the other hand it’s also possible that Hallinan is telling the truth, just for practice, and the indictments were a product not of his boldness but his inability to keep his grand jury under control.

There seems to be virtually no prospect that this will result in the appointment of a first-rate chief from outside the department and the thorough housecleaning SFPD desperately needs. Not, that is, until San Francisco finds itself a new mayor.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: