The New York Times

March 1, 2003

San Francisco Police Chief and Deputies Indicted in Cover-Up


S AN FRANCISCO, Feb. 28 — A grand jury today indicted the police chief here, the assistant chief, two deputy chiefs and six other police officers on charges related to a fight outside a bar in November involving off-duty police officers and to accusations of a cover-up after the fight.

Chief Prentice E. Sanders, the city's first black police chief who was scheduled to retire this year, and six of the others were indicted on charges of conspiring to obstruct justice.

The remaining three officers, all involved in the fight, were indicted on assault and battery charges. One, Officer Alex Fagan Jr., is the son of the assistant police chief, Alex Fagan.

With the exception of Chief Sanders, the men turned themselves in shortly before 3 p.m. and were booked at the Hall of Justice. They were released about an hour later, the three charged in the fight after posting bond of about $90,000 each, according to the San Francisco Sheriff's Department, which operates the jail. The others were released on their own recognizance.

The Police Commission, which oversees the department, called an emergency meeting late today and heard the views of a capacity audience. Later, in a closed session, the commission was expected to consider a replacement for Chief Sanders. Officers accused of crimes are typically placed on paid administrative leave.

The San Francisco district attorney, Terence Hallinan, who sent the case to a grand jury, canceled a news conference today and did not comment on the indictments.

On a television news program last month, Mr. Hallinan said the Police Department's investigation of the fight "hadn't been handled as an ordinary case" and had "almost Watergate aspects to it."

Though it was widely known that the grand jury was investigating the fight, the scope of the indictments surprised many people. Supervisor Tom Ammiano compared the shock felt at City Hall to that felt over the shootings of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978.

"It is the gravity of it, the scale of it," Mr. Ammiano said. "The labeling of obstruction of justice is what is taking people's breath away."

Mayor Willie L. Brown, who is a close friend of Chief Sanders, described the charges as "deeply disturbing" and sought to assuage public fears about a Police Department in turmoil. In an appearance tonight before the Police Commission, he asked that Chief Sanders and the other commanders be allowed to stay on the job and that the department investigation of the fight be handed to the state.

Peter Keane, dean of the Golden Gate University School of Law, said this was the first time since the Boss Tweed era in the 1870's in New York City that the entire top commanders of a big city police department had faced criminal charges.

Mr. Keane, who worked for 20 years in the San Francisco public defender's office, said some of those indicted, in particular, Chief Sanders, had sterling reputations. Chief Sanders had spent most of his career as a robbery and homicide investigator and was credited with cracking some of the city's biggest cases, including the so-called Zebra killings in the 1970's, which involved random murders.

"Most of the people of San Francisco are going to have a hard time being convinced that Earl Sanders has `gone bad,' " Mr. Keane said. 

Last November, Officer Fagan Jr., Officer Matthew Tonsing and Officer David Lee were accused of beating two men outside the Blue Light bar. One account of the fight contended the men had refused to hand over a bag of steak fajitas to the off-duty officers.
The two men said they had no idea that their attackers were police officers until much later, and their lawyers complained that the police did not follow departmental procedures when officers responded to the men's call for help.

In the transcript of a 911 call, one of the men, Adam Snyder, said the attack was unprovoked.

In January, an inspector assigned to look into the incident was abruptly removed from the investigation and reassigned. The inspector, Lt. Joe Dutto, complained at the time that his transfer was punitive.

The president of the San Francisco Police Officers' Association, Chris Cunnie, accused Mr. Hallinan of "a purely political ploy" in seeking the indictments against the top commanders instead of focusing on the officers in the fight.

"To indict the entire command staff over a 30-second street fight when this country is on the verge of war and resulting terrorist threats is completely irresponsible," Mr. Cunnie said. "How do you cover up that much from a 30-second street fight anyway?"

Besides the chief, the assistant chief and the three officers in the fight, those indicted are: Deputy Chief Gregory Suhr, Deputy Chief David Robinson, Capt. Gregory Corrales, Lt. Edmund J. Cota and Sgt. John F. Syme.

Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice