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San Francisco Police Chief Stepping Down

Earl Sanders decides to retire because of health problems that he attributes to his indictment and unwarranted arrest.

August 12, 2003|Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Police Chief Earl Sanders said Monday that he is retiring after nearly four decades on the force because of health problems resulting from his criminal indictment in the politically charged Fajitagate case.

Sanders presented a retirement letter to Mayor Willie Brown on Monday, less than a week after a judge had agreed to erase all traces of the chief's arrest on felony conspiracy charges.

After the brief meeting, Brown issued a statement thanking Sanders for his city service and congratulating him on his "efforts to restore his excellent reputation after the injustice he endured at the hands of our incredibly irresponsible district attorney."

Brown spokesman P.J. Johnston later said that the mayor plans to name Alex Fagan, who has been acting chief while Sanders has been on medical leave, to fill Sanders' position.

Fagan could not be reached for comment.

Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan had moved to dismiss charges that Sanders joined Fagan and several other members of his command staff in covering up a brawl last year involving three off-duty officers. But Sanders succeeded last week in getting the judge to declare him "factually innocent" to clear his name.

Sanders, the city's first African American police chief, repeatedly has said he hoped to resume control of the 2,300-member department. But he has not regained his health and his time was running out because Brown leaves office in January and a new mayor is expected to choose his own chief.

"The things that happened to me ... took a very heavy toll," Sanders said in a telephone interview. "Being arrested, the great energy I had to improve the Police Department went out the window. I was in a struggle for my freedom. People who made it happen knew they were wrong and have been proven wrong."

Sanders, who was appointed chief about a year ago, said he ultimately decided to retire because he wanted to spend more time with his family; in addition, his doctors had explained the results of some recent tests related to heart problems and a stroke that he said he suffered after being indicted.

Sanders said he didn't want "to take that gamble" of returning to work. "It's not something to play around with."

City retirement system officials said Sanders, 65, is scheduled to leave the payroll Sept. 12. He will collect 90% of his annual salary, which is $209,687 but could be adjusted upward under collective bargaining now underway. He has applied for disability, which provides additional tax and survivor benefits.

Sanders' attorney, Phil Ryan, said it would have been too stressful for Sanders to resume the job until he was well.

Asked whether he planned any civil litigation, Sanders said he would need to consult with his attorneys before deciding. He said, however, that his legal bills have run in the "six figures" and that he and his wife had sold cars and jewelry to pay for his defense. "I had to spend my life savings," he said. "But it was worth it."

Sanders said that being charged with a crime was worse than being shot at during his years as a homicide detective. He placed blame on Hallinan for his handling of a grand jury that indicted Sanders and six other police supervisors; all of the cover-up charges were later dismissed by the judge.

Sanders said the Police Department and district attorney's office need to rebuild a relationship that was torn apart by the handling of a fight that allegedly occurred when three rookie officers accosted two strangers over a bag of steak fajitas.

But he said he did not want an apology from Hallinan, who faces reelection in November. "I don't want to see his face. As a professional, he has no business in the business."

Hallinan spokesman Mark MacNamara said the district attorney handled the case ethically. "The bottom line is that the grand jury reached a conclusion," he said. "Mr. Hallinan filed an indictment, then a week later dismissed it," after concluding there was not enough evidence to go forward.

MacNamara declined to comment on the criticisms from Sanders and the mayor.

"As far as we are concerned, this chapter is finished and we are moving on to prosecuting the three officers whose case started all this," MacNamara said.

The three officers in the beating case face assault charges. One of the three, Alex Fagan Jr., is the son of the acting chief. He recently was fired.

Sanders said he plans to write books about police investigations and to work on a movie project about one of his most infamous cases, the so-called Zebra murders, which involved random attacks by African Americans on whites.

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