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S.F. Police Chief Recounts 'the Worst Day' of His Life

Earl Sanders, after a conspiracy charge is dismissed, defends himself, his department.

March 13, 2003|Tim Reiterman and John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — When a young man from Texas was being sworn in as one of San Francisco's first black police officers, Chief Thomas Cahill pinned on his badge and asked in an Irish brogue: "Prentice Sanders, what do you want to bring to the Police Department? ... What do you want to do?"

The rookie responded, "I want to be a homicide detective. After that, I would like your job."

Thirty-nine years later, Prentice Earl Sanders got his wish. But within six months, that dream was dashed. On what he says was the worst day of his life, Police Chief Sanders got a phone call at home saying he had been indicted.

On Wednesday, the day after that conspiracy charge was dismissed, the chief talked for the first time about a scandal that has consumed the city and damaged not only his reputation, but also that of his department.

In a two-hour interview, Sanders defended his department's investigation of a brawl that involved the son of his assistant chief.

Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan has likened the department's investigation of the brawl to the Watergate cover-up. But Sanders said: "There was nothing wrong with that investigation. Absolutely nothing."

And he recalled his thoughts on the morning he was told that he would be arrested.

"It was, well, like I'm going to wake up from this; this is a crazy nightmare," Sanders said. "Why am I getting indicted? For what? By whom? Why?"

The investigator told him he had to surrender in about an hour. "These people are going to come down here and they're going to arrest me, the chief of police," he said he thought. "I don't know why or for what ....I said, 'Am I still in America?' "

Within hours, an angry and humiliated Sanders was fingerprinted and booked, and had his mug shot taken. He learned that he faced conspiracy charges in an alleged police cover-up of a brawl involving three off-duty officers. And to make matters worse, his son, a lawyer, was looking on.

Sanders characterizes the charges against him and his command staff as tantamount to a "terrorist attack" because he says they hit so unexpectedly, unfairly and with so much devastation.

"I've been shot at. I've heard a bullet go close enough to my ear to hear it sing," he said in an interview in his son's downtown office.

"I've had people try to stab me, hit me in the head with baseball bats and other objects. But I've never been Sunday punched.... It was a terrible feeling, and it still is. It still is."

The 65-year-old chief has been on medical leave for heart problems and high blood pressure. The stress, he said, was so great that his doctor believes he may have suffered a stroke since his indictment.

However, Sanders vowed to return to the command of the 2,250-member force if his doctors approved. The last time he had a serious medical problem, he was back at work within three months, he said. "I am under treatment now, and I will return to work," he said. "This is what I do."

The scandal erupted over a fight Nov. 20. Within days, news accounts and the district attorney were suggesting that police had mishandled the affair.

The three off-duty officers involved were not subjected to a street-side identification. At the station house, they were not separated and were allowed to keep their cell phones. Neither were they required to submit to a blood alcohol test for criminal investigators, although internal affairs investigators collected urine samples for their separate investigation.

On Feb. 27, a grand jury, citing what it considered irregularities in the investigation, indicted Sanders and six supervisors on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice. The grand jury also charged three rookie officers with assault and battery.

Sanders, a career cop with a homicide detective's eye for detail, is a department veteran who spent more than two decades investigating killings and won awards for catching dangerous criminals. He has lectured and taught courses on criminal justice.

He founded a police association that won a legal fight to compel the department to hire women and more minorities. And he became the first African American chief in the Police Department's 153-year history.

Humble Beginnings

Born in Nacogdoches, Texas, the son of a millworker, Sanders was raised by his mother and stepfather after his parents split up. On her deathbed, he promised to continue the education he started in a three-room, blacks-only schoolhouse.

In the early 1950s, at the age of 14, Sanders came alone to San Francisco with $35 and a suitcase. He lived in a rooming house and worked nights washing dishes at the Fairmont Hotel. Days, he attended high school and played football. His coach and a guidance counselor who caught him forging absentee notes became surrogate parents. Later, after a stint in the military, he took the police examination almost on a lark and finished among the top 10.

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