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S.F. Mayor Says City Entering 'Uncharted Waters'

Willie Brown rejects calls for the indicted police chief and three top aides to step down. The D.A. likens the case to Watergate.

March 02, 2003|John M. Glionna and Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — The criminal indictment of the police chief and three of his top brass has cast this city into what Mayor Willie Brown warned are "uncharted waters," as he sought to reassure the public and the state's chief law enforcement officer that San Francisco still has a functioning Police Department.

Chief Earl Sanders and the assistants surrendered Friday to sheriff's deputies and were booked at the county jail after their surprise grand jury indictments on charges that they conspired to cover up a brawl involving three off-duty officers.

In this politically fractured city, everyone from county supervisors and ex-police chiefs to civil rights leaders and average citizens now wonder whether an indicted police chief can still command a shellshocked police force of 2,300 officers.

The official word so far, a day after the indictments became public, is that Sanders and his commanders will remain in place, at least until Monday, when the Police Commission meets to weigh allegations against them and decide whether they should remain on the job.

The often irascible Brown scrambled to respond to Friday's events, which threatened to paralyze City Hall, even in a town that has been accustomed to bare-knuckles politics.

Above a banner front page headline in Saturday's San Francisco Chronicle, the mayor was quoted as asserting his authority: "I'm the commander in chief of this goddamn place, and there is no way the command staff of my Police Department is going to step down at this time. It's a matter of public safety."

In a city where politics is regular breakfast conversation, talk of the indictments spilled over to lunch and dinner. From bus stops to malls, seemingly everyone had an opinion about the controversy, which filled the airwaves, from talk shows to news updates, throughout the day.

Early Friday, after Brown learned of the indictments, he called state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer to alert him to what was unfolding.

"Lockyer's primary concern was making sure that San Francisco had a functioning Police Department," said Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for the attorney general. "He was assured by Willie ... that things would be OK."

On Saturday, attorneys representing the four top police officials and six other indicted officers and supervisors huddled in a strategy session, while Brown visited several district police stations to rally the spirits of rank-and-file officers.

Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan said in an interview with The Times that -- although his office presented evidence to the grand jury -- he was surprised about the breadth of the indictment.

Hallinan said Saturday that he "felt like the bombardier on the Enola Gay," referring to the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. "It's about what I felt. I was shocked to see that."

The district attorney said he could not go into details of the case, but he predicted that the release of the grand jury transcripts in the coming weeks will answer most of the questions from the public and the city's political leadership. Then, Hallinan said, "everyone will understand what happened."

Meanwhile, the police chief went on the attack against Hallinan, asking the attorney general's office to examine whether the local prosecutor abused his discretion in his office's handling of the San Francisco County Grand Jury.

Sanders' attorneys provided voluminous documents that they contend show that the charges are baseless and "politically motivated," Barankin said.

Brown and Hallinan are both liberal Democrats, but in recent years have clashed over issues ranging from crime to personal style. The current crisis has only escalated those animosities. It also has brought to the surface deeply rooted racial tensions that have persisted even under Sanders, who became the city's first black chief when he was appointed last year by Brown.

The local NAACP and a minority police officers association defended Sanders.

The Rev. Amos Brown, a former supervisor and president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People's local chapter, warned that the group would use both peaceful protest and legal action to save the jobs of Sanders and his racially diverse command staff.

"We are outraged," said Julian Hill, president of Officers for Justice, which Sanders helped found decades ago when he was coming up through the department. "This will not go unchallenged."

Indicted along with Sanders was Alex Fagan Sr., a 30-year police veteran and the department's No. 2 man, whose son is one of three officers involved in the brawl that triggered the controversy.

Also indicted were Deputy Chief Greg Suhr, who oversees police field operations; Deputy Chief David Robinson, who runs the investigations bureau; Capt. Greg Corrales; Lt. Edmund Cota; and Sgt. John Syme. All were charged with one count each of conspiring to obstruct justice.

The three officers involved in the street fight were indicted on charges of felony assault and battery.

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