Toothless Wonder

Why S.F.'s police watchdog agency has never been effective - and why Prop. H won't change that

Prop. H's supporters count on the emergence of a Police Commission more aggressive in rooting out cop misconduct once the supervisors get a say in the appointments. But that may be little more than wishful thinking. As a whole, the Board of Supervisors has been no more inclined to clamp down on cops for alleged abuses than have the city's last four mayors, including Willie Brown. There was scarcely an outcry from the supervisors' quarters last November when Alex Fagan Sr. was elevated to deputy chief and heir apparent to then-Chief Earl Sanders, or in September when Fagan became chief. This despite Fagan's checkered personal history, which includes well-publicized scrapes with the law in 1990 and 2000 that in most any other city would have almost certainly prevented his rise to the top.

Police accountability was almost invisible as an issue during the just-concluded election campaign for mayor in which three of the supervisors, including Newsom and runoff survivor Matt Gonzalez, were candidates. Not even Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a mayoral also-ran who played a key role in Prop. H's being put on the ballot, had much to say on the subject. Its disappearance as an election issue provides a powerful, if unintended, statement about the lack of will on the part of the city's political class to tackle police misconduct. That silence is all the more remarkable coming on the heels of Fajitagate, the scandal stemming from an incident last November in which three off-duty cops, including Fagan's son, were accused of beating up two men outside a Union Street bar over a bag of steak fajitas.

Indeed, there are those who question whether advocates understandably frustrated by the barriers to police reform in a city that prides itself on championing individual rights may even come to regret the measure. "I would say Prop. H addresses some small things," says University of Nebraska at Omaha criminal justice professor Samuel Walker, who has written extensively about civilian oversight issues. "But it's doubtful whether allowing an 11-member board of supervisors to help govern a police department strengthens political accountability rather than weakens it."

Chief Alex Fagan Sr. has pledged to "fix" 
the SFPD's accountability problems, but 
complaints persist.
Brandon Fernandez
Chief Alex Fagan Sr. has pledged to "fix" the SFPD's accountability problems, but complaints persist.
SFPD Deputy Chief Heather Fong.
Brandon Fernandez
SFPD Deputy Chief Heather Fong.

It's a Wednesday night in October, and in a drab hallway outside a fifth-floor hearing room at the Hall of Justice a half-dozen uniformed cops are seated on a bench like relief pitchers in a bullpen, talking politics. One expresses alarm that his wife's best friend has said she intends to vote for Prop. H. "People don't realize what this thing means," the cop says. "Yeah," interrupts one of his buddies. "But they better wise up quick unless they want [Supervisor] Chris Daly and that crowd running the [Police] Department."

Inside the hearing room, where the five members of San Francisco's Police Commission have emerged from behind closed doors to conduct the public portion of their weekly meeting, police reform isn't on the agenda. But it is clearly on the minds of many in the audience. Nearly all of the three dozen or so seats are filled, occupied mostly by students, parents, and at least one teacher from Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in the Bayview. The evening is an anniversary of sorts, marking slightly more than a year since a garden-variety fight in a school hallway escalated into something much worse. The official version of what happened, as endorsed by the police, is that it was a student uprising that required more than 60 cops, some in riot gear, to quell. The "community" version is that it was police who rioted after school officials and a cop assigned to the school panicked and overreacted.

Like many disputes involving the SFPD, the jury is still out on this one. Whether there will ever be an authoritative airing of what happened at Thurgood Marshall on Oct. 11, 2002, appears doubtful. Last February, DA Terence Hallinan, at the urging of then-Chief Sanders, dropped criminal charges against a handful of students and a teacher stemming from the incident, in the interest of "community healing." Justified or not, critics smelled a whitewash. And, as is its legacy in such matters, the Police Commission has done nothing to diminish the skepticism. For more than a year, a contingent from the school has demanded that the panel hold a hearing on the matter. In typical fashion, the commission has ignored the group.

If there's consolation, it is that the Police Commission ignores everyone who shows up to complain about the cops. The panel's members are President Connie Perry, an attorney with the state Insurance Department; real estate brokers Victor Makras and Sidney Chan; longtime insurance executive Angelo Quaranta, who owns Allegro, the Russian Hill restaurant and political watering hole that recently closed; and Wayne Friday, a columnist with the Bay Area Reporter, a gay newspaper. The part-time commissioners, who are paid $100 per month, typically conduct their meetings as a model of efficiency, often disposing of up to a dozen agenda items in a matter of minutes. But the portion of their sessions required by law to be set aside for public comments typically turns into a parade of the discontented, with two dozen or more people railing against alleged abuses as the commissioners sit as expressionless as sphinxes, almost never responding.

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