Image Problem

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

Former Capt. Rick Bruce, one of the cops tarred by the scandal, thinks the chief and mayor turned the video into a crusade in a bid to inflate their approval ratings. "You don't have to be a political science major to understand how and why this relatively minor police story morphed into a media feeding frenzy, with even the national media joining in," Bruce says. "To destroy the careers of so many very dedicated officers in exchange for a few days of media attention is really sad."

As the highest-ranking officer tied to the scandal, Bruce was of particular interest to the media; in the days following the press conference his mug was all over the news.

In one skit, Bruce, who served as captain of the station from early 2004 until mid-2005, was pictured making strange, somewhat suggestive motions with his tongue in response to a trio of female cops parodying Charlie's Angels. But Bruce had left the station four months before the clip surfaced: He resigned, went on a previously planned extended leave, and then retired. Bruce and Cohen both say the ex-captain wasn't involved in the video — the filmmaker used outtakes of Bruce culled from footage shot years earlier.

We'd love to tell you what Mayor Newsom thinks about Bruce's comments, and the video in general, but the mayor declined to speak to SF Weekly or offer any sort of comment through his four-person communications team.

Chief Fong, however, did respond to the issues raised by this story, and in a written statement she deflected criticism and expanded on her position.

"The department expects for all its members, whether on-duty or off-duty, to act in a professional manner and promote an environment that is free from discrimination and harassment. The activities depicted in these videos were neither consistent with department policy nor with the expectations of the people of San Francisco," Fong states.

As far as morale goes, the chief says: "The department and its members face many circumstances which can, and often do, have an impact on our morale. These include the loss of members in the line of duty, unwarranted criticisms, ongoing staffing challenges, and budgetary shortfalls. Despite these, however, we still have to do our best to honor the oath we have all taken."

Fong took issue with the charge that Bayview Station was left understaffed in the days after the scandal broke: "There was no reduction in public safety in the Bayview as a result of brief administrative actions undertaken by the department. Bayview Station has the large officer complement of any district station. ... Supplemental patrols in the Bayview were implemented and are still in place to provide additional violence suppression resources."

Finally, she defended the department's handling of the probe: "As we do in any inquiry into allegations of misconduct, a thorough and impartial investigation was conducted and appropriate follow-up actions taken. These recommendations, whether they involve discipline, counseling, or retraining, are based solely on the facts of the case."

Since the Halloween bloodbath, in which nine people were shot in the Castro District with little comment from the chief, the grumbling about her leadership from within the department has intensified, with cops like homicide detective Lea Militello openly blasting Fong. "We need a chief who's going to speak up, and going to support us, and we're not seeing it," Militello recently told KGO (Channel 7). She added, "Morale really, frankly, can't get any worse."

Bruce believes the chief's handling of the video matter marked the start of the disenchantment of the rank and file. "She lost the department. You can't offer up your troops as sacrificial lambs to a politician's blind ambition and then expect them to follow and support you. It doesn't work that way," he asserts.

To be sure, there's plenty of bad blood between Bruce and Fong: Even before the Bayview videos became public, Bruce offered testimony in a civil suit contradicting the chief, and circulated an open letter criticizing her for pushing out Deputy Chief Greg Suhr, whom she dispatched to the Siberia of the Public Utilities Commission, from which he's supposed to guard the city's water infrastructure from terrorist attack.

So, certainly, Bruce has an ax to grind. But without a doubt there is a legion of unhappy officers out there. Ask frontline cops about the chief and you're not likely to hear a lot of praise. As one Bayview officer put it: "When the mayor wants to change the culture of the department, he should cut off the fifth floor of the Hall of Justice — the fifth floor is where the command staff are. Get rid of everybody above the level of captain."

When future city scholars write the history of the Fong era, they may describe her campaign against the video cops as a courageous stand against bigotry and intolerance, or record it as a politically motivated stunt.

As for Cohen, he's hoping to resuscitate his career and mend his damaged reputation, refusing to exit the force quietly. But he's crafted some backup plans, too, if things go badly and he's booted from the SFPD. He's bought into another restaurant, Village Sausage in Oakland; gotten some financial training in making home loans; and, naturally, he's still dabbling in video, running a small production outfit, PowderPlay Productions.

"I could've let them slap me on the wrist, but I'm not that kind of person," he offers during a brief break from his work in the records room. "My job is far less important to me than my dignity. My mother taught me that."

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