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 policemen outside a local bar, authorities said Friday.
Sanders and the others reportedly had defended the officers' role in an early-morning brawl that began when a bartender leaving work was ordered to surrender a bag of steak fajitas. One cop involved is the son of the assistant chief, the department's No. 2 man.
Local officials said they knew of no other major U.S. police department whose top leaders were indicted in recent years.
All of the 10 indicted officers but Sanders arrived by van and car at police headquarters south of Market Street Friday afternoon to turn themselves in. The chiefs whereabouts were not immediately known, although there were reports that Sanders intended to turn himself in.
Late Friday, Mayor Willie Brown spoke before an emegency 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.
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 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 fundraising skills and ability to out-wit 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 D.A. supported Brown's opponent in the 1999 election.
Partisans said the indictments were Hallinan's revenge on Mayor Brown. Others called the move a racist volley fired by the white D.A. 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 future 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 in- volved in the fracas. But on Friday, the San Francisco Sheriff's Department confirmed that Sanders and three of his top brass also had been implicated in the grand jury probe. Hallinan abruptly canceled a scheduled noon news conference, and he would not comment on Sanders' possible involvement. A spokesman for this office said it would be "breaking the law" to discuss the case until the warrants had been served.
Brown, a longtime friend of Sanders, was corralled as he walked to his car from City Hall, saying, "I have absolutely nothing. I know nothing."
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. The interest of pubic safety is the most important part of all this, and that is in good hands."
But officers at San Francisco's Hall of Justice, which houses both the police and prosecutors' offices, didn't seem so sure. On Friday, as reporters converged on the building, 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 asked not to be named. "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. "The station is in a state of shock," said Officer Carl Payne, a 12-year SFPD veteran. "In the military it's the generals who run things, but it's the troops who do the work."
Among those indicted were patrol Officers Alex Fagan Jr., 23; Matthew Tonsing, 28; and David Lee, 23 — who were involved in the November altercation that is central to the D.A.'s investigation. Over nine days of testimony, the San Francisco County Grand Jury heard from 42 witnesses, some of whom described how the officers got into a fight with two men — Jade Santoro and Adam Snyder — outside a bar after closing time the morning of Nov. 20.
Snyder told investigators the officer demanded his bag of steak fajitas as he left his bartending job. Santoro suffered a broken nose in the ensuing brawl.
The three officers have been indicted on an assortment of felony assault and battery charges, authorities said. The felony assault offenses carry prison terms of from two to four years, and could include more time if aggravating circumstances are proven, said City Public Defender Jeff Adachi.
Also indicted were Chief Sanders; Assistant Chief Alex Fagan, father of the officer involved in the brawl; Deputy Chief David Robinson; who supervised Tonsing and Lee; Deputy Chief Gregory Suhr; Capt. Greg Corrales; Lt. Edmund Cota; and Sgt. John Syme, who led the response to the fight.
They have all been charged with conspiracy to commit a felony, which Adachi said could carry a prison sentence of 16 months to three years.
"We are looking at charges that could potentially call for prison sentences," he said. "This is really an unprecedented situation. I don't believe there is anywhere else in the country where you've had top [police] brass indicted like this."
After they turned themselves in Friday, the six command officers were released by a judge on their own recognizance. All three of the officers inmvolved in the brawl made bail, which was set at $91,500 for Fagnay Jr. and Lee and $90,000 for Tonsing.
Freya A. Home, an attorney who represents Tonsing, said she was not surprised that her client was indicted. But she said she was shocked that the Police Department's command staff also was implicated. "This is so clearly politically motivated," she said. "I've been practicing here for 25 years, and I've never seen anything like this."
Sanders, a 37-year veteran and former homicide detective, last year assumed the reins of a department with one of the lowest rates nationwide of solving serious crimes.
Normally outspoken San Francisco politicians appeared to be in shock at Friday's developments. Many asked the Same question: Who's in charge?
Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a longtime Brown opponent and mayoral candidate, called the indictments "a black eye for the city, no matter what the outcome is. It's a black eye for the mayor in his last year of office and it's demoralizing for the average cop on the street, who is honest and who works hard."
Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who recently had a shouting" match with Brown on the steps of City Hall, was more circumspect:
"Obviously, we're going to have to stay tuned to this. But none of these folks are guilty yet; none have been tried. An indictment does not a crime make."
Chris Cunnie, president of the San Francisco Police Officers' Assn., on Friday called news of the indictments "political shenanigans" on the part of the district attorney. "This can only be described as the opening salvo in Hallinan's reelection campaign," he said.
The mood Friday was somber at the department's central station in North Beach as most officers refused to discuss the indictments. Those who did could only scratch their heads. "It's like a witch hunt," said Sgt. John Colla, who has 25 years with the force. "It's unfortunate that politics had to get mixed up with this."
At City Hall, mayoral spokesman P.J. Johnston reacted with anger to the indictments and to Hallinan's silence.
"Certainly, charges of obstruction of justice are very serious charges, and Mayor Brown is not makinglight of that," he said. "But if the district attorney intends to prosecute the top members of the San Francisco Police Department for a felony, he damned well better have good evidence to support it."
Mark MacNamara, a spokesman for Hallinan, said that Friday's news conference was canceled because "the warrant process is not completed," adding that he was "prohibited by law" to discuss the case further. He said Hallinan would not comment until Monday at the earliest.
MacNamara also said the indictments would remain sealed for at least 10 days and that the grand jury transcripts would stay under wraps for three weeks.
The Rev. Amos Brown, a former San Francisco supervisor and president of the local branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People; condemned the indictments as politically motivated. "We challenge the district attorney — in the words of Joe Friday in 'Dragnet' — to give us the facts that warrant this kind of indictment," he said.
Brown, a local Baptist minister, cited the long and distinguished careers of Chief Sanders and Deputy Chief Robinson, also an African American, and said, "People who look like me have been disproportionately under attack" in San Francisco.
The police investigation into the brawl had been mired in controversy. Several of the top brass had gone on record as defending the three officers, and Lt. Joe. Dutto, who led the investigation, had complained that his job was made more difficult because of restricted access. On Friday, a former San Francisco mayor and onetime police chief, Frank Jordan, echoed those concerns. "What bothers me is that whenever an incident like this occurs, the Police Department has to give some sense that they are professionally on top of the; situation and make the public understand that they are going to be fair," Jordan said.
"But that didn't happen. And as for Hallinan, whether you like him or not, he's charged with the responsibility of getting to the bottom of this."
Should Sanders leave his job, a close confidant of Brown said Friday that Deputy Chief Heather Fong is the most likely candidate to take his place on an interim basis.
Times correspondents Imran Vittachi, Michelle Munn and Carol Pogash contributed to this report.3