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Steve Landi was a hero at 101 California and a cop to his bones. Why is the SFPD trying so hard to get rid of him?

Wednesday, Jun 7 2000
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Steve Landi was a good policeman. Not merely honest, polite to the citizenry, or judicious with the powers attendant to his badge, but good in a larger sense. He believed as a matter of bedrock faith that police work was a calling, that he was privileged to be a member of the San Francisco force, and that doing his job well meant giving something back to a city he holds in high regard.

The uncomplicated sincerity of Landi's allegiance to law, order, and San Francisco can be hard to discern at first. It is hidden behind the weathered bravado of a blunt, muscle-bound Italian with medallions dangling from his neck, a 44-year-old man who spent one-quarter of his life rooting out drug dealers, car thieves, wife-beaters, and myriad other "bad guys" from the city's nooks and crannies, at every hour of the day and night.

Over time, some of his fellow officers caught glimpses of it, this distinction between an hourly hired hand and Landi, the true believer. Many of his superiors learned of it too, and would enlist Landi's services when faced with a troublesome assignment. Certainly, Sgt. Patrick Tobin saw it when he climbed up a stairwell with Landi at 101 California St. almost seven years ago to confront a mass murderer. "He was a policeman's policeman," says Tobin.

Yet for nearly five years now, the system to which Landi pledged his devotion has been trying to rid itself of him. The City and County of San Francisco apparently does not want Steve Landi as a cop anymore. The San Francisco Police Department has used some of the most potent weapons in its bureaucratic arsenal to either drive him from the force, or bury him away in an obscure administrative niche where he will be seldom seen or heard.

It has been two years since Landi has reported for work or drawn a paycheck, and longer still since he made an arrest, or patrolled a city street.

To the city, Landi is an unappetizing leftover of the crow that the Police Department and District Attorney's Office reluctantly ate after blowing a much-heralded police corruption probe.

In 1995, Landi was one of three officers indicted by a grand jury in what the daily newspapers came to call "the biggest corruption scandal to hit the department in years." The scandalous behavior, supposedly, consisted of officers stealing money and other valuables -- including fountain pens and baseball cards -- from drug suspects whom they had arrested. Landi was accused of being a bit player in the alleged scheme. He was swept up in the investigation not because he was caught stealing anything himself, but because he would not cough up the evidence that investigators sought to implicate his colleagues.

There was, it turned out, no evidence for Landi to turn over, because there was no corruption to be found.

When the smoke cleared at trial almost two years later, what emerged was a portrait of a horribly ill-conceived investigation, cooked up in the heat of an election year, that resulted in criminal charges against three cops based on the scantest evidence and most dubious of accusers. So weak was the district attorney's case that Landi and two other officers were convicted of nothing after a three-month trial. "There was absolutely zero evidence," recalls Michael Mitchell, a juror in the case.

After the trial, the Police Department seemed to think that Landi should return quietly to work, allow himself to be shunted off to police purgatory in the file room, and forget about the damage to his name, the pay he had lost while the case was pending, and the stain on his once-sterling record.

But meek acceptance is not Landi's way. It does not comport with the gut-held definition of fairness that he carried with him on the streets. As surely as guilt should lead to punishment, innocence should lead to vindication, he believes.

"It's just who I am," he says. "If I'm wrong, I'm gonna put my head down, and give me a smack. But if I'm right, by God, watch out. I'm not swallowing the pill."

Steve Landi will almost certainly never work as a San Francisco cop again. He has accepted that. For now, unemployed and living on the good graces of his girlfriend, he spends most of his time fighting the city, hoping to retrieve some vestige of his life's work.

He has filed lawsuits asking for the back pay and disability benefits he believes the city owes him, and a recent court victory has buoyed his spirits on that front. But the one measure of justice he really wants is the one he is least likely to get -- an admission from the city and the Police Department that they screwed him over, then hung him out to dry.

Landi is not the only one who believes an apology is in order.

"What happened to Steve Landi was unconscionable," says Lt. Bruce Marovich, who worked often with Landi on the force and still holds him in high esteem. "In my 33 years I have never seen a cop get screwed like this. I would bet my life on Steve Landi."

That's the kind of praise a young cop dreams of when setting forth on a career in law enforcement. It appears to be deserved, in part because Steve Landi bet his life on being a good cop.

The Bay Area has been Landi's only home. It's where his father's parents came after immigrating from Italy, and where he was raised, spending parts of his childhood growing up in North Beach, Daly City, and the Inner Sunset. It was his dad's folks, he says, who formed him most. "I learned pretty solid values from those people," he says.

Landi attended, but did not earn a degree from, the University of San Francisco after graduating from Oceana High School in Pacifica. He married, had a son, and set out to be a police officer because he could see purpose in the work. He started on the job in Daly City in 1982, when he was in his mid-20s. Landi would later tell colleagues that, as part of a lie detector test administered by the Daly City force, he was asked if he had ever stolen anything in his life, even something as inconsequential as a candy bar when he was a child. Landi answered no. And he passed.

About The Author

David Pasztor

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