Fajita Backlash

Our DA's ineptitude in dealing with a food-inspired police scandal may frustrate desperately needed reform of SFPD

In Act I, the department appears down for the count, on the verge of being forced to dramatically reform itself.

In Act II, the DA's case falls apart amid days of pathetic public hand-wringing over evidentiary insufficiencies.

Act III: The SFPD emerges vindicated and, therefore, sheathed in a layer of impunity even stronger than the one that had previously protected it.

From where I sit, this scenario's as good as already written. District Attorney Terry Hallinan would need to pull off a prosecutorial miracle to prove the obstruction of justice conspiracy that he told a grand jury he could not prove. And our DA's no magician; he's a hapless bumbler. Correction: He's a hapless bumbler with a weak case.

As readers of any news outlet in America know, a grand jury last month indicted three officers, including Fagan's son Alex Jr., of an unprovoked attack on a bartender and his friend. The indictment also accuses seven high-ranking officers, including Chief Earl Sanders and Assistant Chief Fagan Sr., of conspiring to cover up the alleged beating. Recent reports say Hallinan is reviewing grand jury testimony and may decide to withdraw charges against all but the three officers involved in the initial brawl.

Hallinan's case is almost sure to fail. And then the very real problems of the police department, which cries for reform, will be buried in backlash sympathetic to the SFPD.

And as anybody who's followed the department's behavior during recent years knows, padding payrolls with tens of millions of dollars worth of comp time is the least of the SFPD's sins. Our cops have the worst big-city record in the country when it comes to solving violent crimes, according to a Chronicle report last year. The department doesn't even investigate some serious crimes: The attempted rape of my wife in an apartment building elevator four years ago is one such case that comes to mind.

An officer assigned to her case assured her police would search for her assailant. When his supervisor later said there would be no investigation, she asked why she had been mislead.

"I didn't want you to get more upset," is what she recalls him saying.

The SFPD's record of honestly dealing with police brutality cases, meanwhile, makes the current cover-up crisis appear trivial, even absurd. The department has long pursued a policy of willful obfuscation whenever its members are accused of using excessive force. In the case of Idriss Stelley, the boy police gunned down two years ago at the Metreon theater, the department withheld basic information from the public about the killing for months, citing a loophole in state public information law. In the case of Gregory Caldwell, who was asphyxiated in police custody last year in a hobble restraint device, police secrecy left his mother with no way of knowing what had happened to cause her son's death. Without access to facts, she incorrectly feared he'd been lynched by cops; she suffered a nervous breakdown.

So by my way of reckoning, March 2003 is a wonderful moment of opportunity in the history of San Francisco's relationship with its police department. The San Francisco Police Officers Association's contract with the city expires June 30. The city will be renegotiating it this spring. The negotiations represent a great chance to erase work and pay rules, including the department's comp-time policy, that abuse the public trust. We'll be voting for a new mayor before long, giving the public the opportunity to make police reform a central campaign issue. Do candidates Gavin Newsom, Tom Ammiano, former Supervisor Angela Alioto, Treasurer Susan Leal, and former Chief of Police Tony Ribera support hiring a reform-minded police chief, or a Police Commission with some sort of spine?

This voter wants to know.

Sadly, by the time the campaign is in full swing, the police department will have been "vindicated." And Alex Fagan Sr. will be back at work, refreshed, vigorous, ready to begin working overtime to protect our public safety.

Or would that be compensatory time?

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