Image Problem

Why have SFPD Chief Heather Fong and Mayor Gavin Newsom pursued an overblown pseudo-scandal when there’s so much else on the department’s plate?

Now Lewis is forbidden from having any face-to-face contact with the public while on duty — he's allowed to speak to civilians on the telephone — and is facing six disciplinary charges and possible banishment from the force. It's definitely not the way the decorated officer planned to wrap up his career. "I do practical jokes and I take care of business. My record shows I take care of business," he says, rattling off the numerous medals and citations he's earned over the years.

The charges against him include "leaving assigned area without permission," "failing to devote all time and attention" to duty, "engaging in conduct that brings discredit upon the department," "using harsh, profane, or uncivil language," and "harassing on the basis of race." The last charge especially bugs Lewis.

"Everybody who saw these charges said, 'You've got to be kidding. They want to go to the Police Commission for those?'"

Asked what should happen to the video cops, one of their peers offers a suggestion: two weeks off without pay. "None of them should be going before the Police Commission," argues this Bayview cop.

A little bit of background on the Police Commission is in order. In San Francisco, officers who are in serious trouble can be reprimanded in two ways. Less serious allegations go to a hearing before the chief, while the chief passes more serious cases on to the Police Commission, the panel of seven citizens who oversee the SFPD. When a discipline case winds up with the commission, it's assigned to one commissioner who'll serve as a judge during a quasi-judicial proceeding. Commissioners can impose sentences ranging from a written reprimand to an ouster from the department.

Because of a court ruling last fall against Copley Press, the publishers of the San Diego Union-Tribune, law enforcement agencies must now keep everything related to officer discipline confidential. The Union-Tribune went to court seeking information about San Diego sheriff's deputies accused of misconduct, but the California Supreme Court shot down that request, issuing a decision forcing police and sheriff's departments across the state to drastically revamp their procedures.

For San Francisco, the Copley Press ruling means Police Commission hearings, which used to be open to the public, are now secret. Even the names of the officers facing censure are secret. Hewing to the new constraints, Chief Fong didn't name the officers when she announced the formal disciplinary proceeding against them last month.

And so, thanks to the court decision, Cohen's video is now confidential. Aside from the footage shown at the December 2005 press conference, which is posted on an array of Web sites, the remainder of the video can't be shown to the masses (or SF Weekly).

"I wish we could show the whole video," says Lewis, who figures the public wouldn't be particularly disturbed by the material. Under the post-Copley guidelines, officers have the option of opening their disciplinary hearings to the public, something Lewis intends to do: "I'm going to allow the press to come in and sit in my hearing, something most officers wouldn't want." Convinced of the absurdity of the charges, he wants people to hear all about his case.

While the department prepares the evidence against Lewis, he and a gaggle of other Bayview officers are building a case of their own, pursuing a civil suit alleging racial discrimination, retaliation, and defamation, and demanding $20 million in damages.

"The lawsuit is based on the fact that my clients participated in this video and so did the Chinese-American officers, but the Chinese-American officers weren't disciplined," says attorney Waukeen McCoy, who represents Lewis, Cohen, Evanson, and 16 other officers. A prominent plaintiffs' lawyer who specializes in discrimination cases, McCoy adds that one Chinese-American cop has, in fact, been sanctioned since the suit was filed, suggesting the department's move was prompted by the officers' legal action.

"It should've been investigated thoroughly before they broadcast it to the world," argues McCoy. "Usually you perform an investigation before going to the media."

Though the lawsuit is probably a long shot — the City Attorney's office, which defends the department from civil suits, is adept at scuttling suits — McCoy makes a good point.

Generally, the SFPD handles misconduct allegations quietly, sharing little information with the media, especially before internal affairs has had an opportunity to distinguish fact from conjecture and draw some firm conclusions. Though the mayor and chief were eager to call in the media and inflate the video debacle into a scandal of epic proportions, both have been far less verbal about the many other controversies swirling around the department, such as the homicide unit's abysmal record at solving local murders, allegations that a veteran cop (with the possible knowledge of fellow officers) visited southeast Asia to have sex with children, and the remarkable frequency of officer-involved shootings.

When it comes to the videos, however, Fong and Newsom flipped the script, publicly skewering lawmen and -women after a quick, cursory probe. Perhaps the pair thought the video was prima-facie evidence of a profound malignancy in the SFPD, a Fajitagate-level situation demanding immediate action and transparency.

But at least one City Hall figure believes the mayor and chief blew up the video issue because they sensed a political opportunity. "They seized on this opportunity to hang these officers because they sensed the officers' position was indefensible," argues Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, adding that he condemns the skits. "There is every appearance the mayor has rushed to judgment and didn't wait to let the investigation play out, as he has in other, much more serious misconduct cases."

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