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The Nation

City's Troubles Heard in SFPD's Blues

Many see the scandal as just the latest--if most sensational--in a slew of hard knocks.

March 05, 2003|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — In the azure glow of the neon martini glass in the window, Lance Cossui wiped the bar at the Blue Light Cafe. No, he said wearily, the notorious steak fajitas were only available after 5 p.m. on Taco Tuesdays. A customer looked up and snickered. The crowd was sparse, like the crowd down the block at the Bus Stop sports bar, where a TV truck idled like a big "Keep Out" sign. Like the crowds at too many places now in this punch-drunk city.

"I just wish this would be over," the restaurateur sighed.

But it's been one black eye after another lately in San Francisco, where this week, three years of tanking tourism and dot-bombed employment were capped with a police scandal that has reached all the way to the chief. Last week, a grand jury indicted three officers, the chief and six members of the command staff. On Tuesday, the 10 pleaded innocent to charges ranging from assault to obstructing the attendant investigation.

Legal experts and defense attorneys for the policemen immediately greeted the indictments with derision. The lawyers said the formal charges -- including several sections written by hand -- were flimsy, predicting they would easily be overturned.

At issue: An after-hours brawl on Union Street that allegedly began when the three off-duty cops -- one the son of an assistant chief -- left the Bus Stop and jumped one of Cossui's bartenders as he left work with a friend and a Taco Tuesday doggie bag of fajitas. That was in November. Since then, the litany of bad San Francisco news has expanded to include "bad cop," "bad cover-up," "bad mayor," "bad district attorney" and "bad political behavior" accusations.

Still, as stunning as it has been to see almost the entire top tier of a city police force sidelined in one fell swoop, the scandal has been viewed by many here as just the latest -- if most sensational -- in a series of hard knocks.

"After all this city has been through?" asked Mark Gray, a 45-year-old electrician smoking a cigarette in the doorway of the Bus Stop in the middle of a workday. "How much more do you think people can possibly care?"

The answer? Plenty.

This scandal seems, after all, to have touched every imaginable San Francisco flash point -- insider politics, civil rights, "old" versus "new" San Francisco, twentysomethings, race, even food. Though many of the details have been sealed, the triggering allegations have been front-page news for several months now:

On Nov. 20 about 2:30 a.m., a confrontation occurred on a trendy strip between Pacific Heights and the Marina District. On one side were Adam Snyder, 22, a bartender at the Blue Light, and Jade Santoro, 25, his friend. On the other were a troubled 23-year-old rookie cop named Alex Fagan Jr. and two other officers who had gone with him to the nearby Bus Stop after a police banquet -- at the House of Prime Rib, the local newspapers duly informed their restaurant-centric readers -- to celebrate the promotion of Fagan's father by the mayor to SFPD's second in command.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, which cited police records, Fagan Jr. had used force in at least 16 run-ins with suspects in a 13-month period, and had been ordered by the department to undergo anger management counseling before the confrontation.

Although the accused officers have not yet told their side of the story publicly, Snyder has said that as he and his friend walked down the street, Fagan and a second off-duty officer demanded his takeout steak fajitas and then attacked him when he refused as a third officer pulled up in his pickup truck.

Unaware that his attackers were off-duty policemen, Snyder called 911 on his cell phone. On-duty officers arrived, and Fagan Jr. and his friends were taken away before they could be identified by Snyder and Santoro, Snyder has said. Allegedly, the officers were allowed to change their clothes, wait four hours and drink plenty of water before they were tested for alcohol.

Still later, a lieutenant handling the investigation said his superiors had impeded his progress, prompting claims of a cover-up in the department, whose chief -- the first black police chief in the history of the city -- was an appointee of Mayor Willie Brown. A grand jury was convened by San Francisco Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan.

When it returned the indictments, the City Hall buzz turned to long-standing political grudges between Brown and the district attorney, who is up for reelection, even as the district attorney denied that politics were involved. Some even accused the white district attorney of acting out of racial animus, which he has denied.

By Tuesday, Chief Earl Sanders was out on medical leave and nearly all of his command staff had been suspended. The Chronicle, in an editorial, was calling Brown the "chief apologist" for the city's "stubborn police leadership."

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