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S.F. Chief, 3 Top Aides Indicted

They and six other officers face charges involving the alleged beating of a bartender and a subsequent cover-up.

March 01, 2003|John M. Glionna and Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — Police Chief Earl Sanders and three of his top brass have been indicted by a grand jury for their alleged involvement in a cover-up of an off-duty assault by three police officers outside a local bar, authorities said Friday.

Sanders and the others reportedly have defended the officers' role in an early-morning brawl that began when a bartender leaving work was ordered to surrender his take-home dinner -- a bag of steak fajitas.

Six others were also charged, including the three officers who allegedly instigated the street brawl and a captain, lieutenant and sergeant. One of the officers is the son of the department's No. 2 man, who also stands charged.

All the high-ranking officers apparently face allegations that they downplayed the severity of the case and conspired to obstruct justice -- a cover-up. The details of the charges will not be known until the indictments are unsealed in the days ahead.

"This is really an unprecedented situation," said City Public Defender Jeff Adachi. "I don't believe there is anywhere else in the country where you've had top [police] brass indicted like this."

All of the 10 indicted officers, except the chief, arrived by van and car at police headquarters south of Market Street on Friday afternoon to turn themselves in. The chief also was booked and released.

Late Friday, Mayor Willie Brown spoke before an emergency meeting of the city's Police Commission, imploring his appointees not to suspend Sanders and his commanders. Brown, who appointed the chief, asked the commissioners to request that the state attorney general's office conduct the disciplinary internal investigation into the actions of the command staff.

After meeting for about two hours in closed session, commissioners issued a statement saying the panel took Brown's request seriously and that, for now, Sanders remains in control of the Police Department. The commission will meet again Monday to consider the matter.

Brown's appearance before the commission was just one measure of the unusual turmoil in this city, where the mayor and Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan, who sought the charges against the police, have engaged in a long-simmering personal feud.

Hallinan is the scion of a famously radical San Francisco family and a prosecutor whose low conviction rates and shoot-from-the-hip style sometimes get him in trouble with voters. Brown is the former Assembly leader known for his fund-raising skills and ability to outwit his opponents. The two colorful politicians had long been allies, but began to feud when both were up for reelection four years ago. Brown blamed Hallinan for the city's crime problems and, in turn, the district attorney was friendly toward Brown's opponent in the bitter 1999 election.

Partisans said the indictments were Hallinan's revenge on Mayor Brown. Others called the move a racist volley fired by the white district attorney at African Americans on the force, including Sanders, who is the city's first black police chief. Still others termed the indictments political grandstanding by Hallinan, who faces reelection this fall and who they say has mayoral aspirations.

But in a city where elected officials usually rush to hold news conferences and bask in the glow of cameras, both Brown and Hallinan spent the day seemingly running for cover.

Reports surfaced late Thursday that indictments had been returned against several officers, including an assistant police chief and the three patrolmen involved in the fracas. On Friday, the San Francisco Sheriff's Department confirmed that Sanders and three of his top brass also had been implicated. Hallinan abruptly canceled a noon news conference, and he would not comment on Sanders' possible involvement. A spokesman for his office said it would be breaking the law to discuss the case until the warrants had been served.

Brown, a longtime friend of the chief, was corralled as he walked to his car from City Hall.

In answer to questions about how a city could operate with a police chief who is under indictment, Brown responded: "I can assure you that you are as safe as you ever were, no matter what the grand jury did."

But officers at San Francisco's Hall of Justice, which houses the police and prosecutors' offices, didn't seem so sure. On Friday, rank-and-file officers stayed out of the hallways for fear of being cornered by the press.

"This place feels like it's in a tailspin and nobody knows which way to go," said one veteran officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We don't know who's calling the shots. We're without a rudder. We're waiting for some Al Haig character to come out and declare he's in charge."

Elsewhere in the city, police said they were going about their patrols, serving warrants and looking after public safety.

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