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?

If Andrew Cohen were to direct a drama based on his life, it would probably go something like this:

In Act 1 we get to know Cohen, a hardworking cop who helps the San Francisco Police Department burnish its image by producing a string of promotional videos. Baldheaded and clean-shaven with pale gray-green eyes, Cohen is bright, well liked, and dedicated to his job.

In Act 2 Cohen finds himself suddenly mired in controversy for producing a spoof video featuring his fellow cops goofing off, while on duty and in uniform, in a series of sophomoric Reno 911-esque skits. The mayor and police chief, who evidently do not share Cohen's sense of humor, quickly condemn the video as "sexist," "racist," "homophobic," "despicable," "offensive," and "insensitive" during a widely covered press conference, and announce Cohen's immediate suspension without pay. Two dozen other officers are quickly suspended as well, and things look grim. Real grim.

Portions of the infamous video are floating around on the Internet.
Portions of the infamous video are floating around on the Internet.
Portions of the infamous video are floating around on the Internet.
Portions of the infamous video are floating around on the Internet.
Portions of the infamous video are floating around on the Internet.
Portions of the infamous video are floating around on the Internet.
Portions of the infamous video are floating around on the Internet.
Portions of the infamous video are floating around on the Internet.
A year after the video surfaced, Cohen is still barred from carrying his weapon.
A year after the video surfaced, Cohen is still barred from carrying his weapon.
Mayor Newsom and Chief Fong share video clips with the media.
Mayor Newsom and Chief Fong share video clips with the media.
Lewis says the mayor is “embellishing.”
Paul Trapani
Lewis says the mayor is “embellishing.”

Ironically, our main character, the guy who devoted years to improving the public's perception of the SFPD, has become the department's No. 1 PR problem.

In Act 3, however, Cohen rebounds. Pissed off at what he sees as betrayal by police brass, he spearheads a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the department, arguing that he and his colleagues have been defamed and unfairly punished. He shares his side of the story with SF Weekly and lets the world know that he's not the villainous cretin his bosses have portrayed him to be. After much heartache, Cohen manages, improbably, to salvage his career and, indeed, his life. Cue the triumphal music and roll credits.

Back in the real world, of course, the final act of Cohen's drama hasn't yet concluded, and at this point, roughly a year after the officer's name first hit the headlines, there's a good chance he'll be exiled from the SFPD and branded a pariah.

In late November, after an epic, no-stone-unturned investigation by detectives with the SFPD's internal affairs unit (called the Management Control Division), Chief Heather Fong unveiled formal disciplinary charges against Cohen and six other officers, which could lead to their permanent expulsion from the force, as well as lesser charges against 28 other cops. The department has also shuffled at least eight officers out of the Bayview Station and into desk jobs.

Undoubtedly, many San Franciscans who remember the videos — or what they've heard about the clips — will cheer should Cohen and the others get the boot, assuming the department has rid itself of a bunch of neanderthals who goofed around on the job while Bayview-Hunters Point burned.

The truth, however, isn't so clear-cut.

Although Chief Fong and Mayor Gavin Newsom gave the citizenry the impression that sheet-wearing Klansmen had somehow taken over the cop shop in the heart of the city's largest African-American neighborhood, in reality the officers who appeared in the videos look like the panelists at a college symposium on multiculturalism — they're black, white, Latino, and Asian-American. At least three are women.

When you speak to the cops at the core of the scandal — as SF Weekly did in a series of exclusive interviews, the first granted since the disciplinary charges came down — the allegations made by the chief and the mayor begin to look dubious, or at the very least overblown. Sure, the officers probably transgressed departmental rules, wasted taxpayer dollars, and put together a collection of tasteless skits that aren't all that funny, but Cohen and his co-workers are anything but a bunch of despicable racists.

"We've been thrown to the wolves," says Cohen, who is banned from carrying his pistol or having any contact with the public and is stuck copying, filing, and shredding SFPD paperwork.

A year after the scandal erupted, its residue lingers. By stuffing Cohen and numerous other officers into desk jobs, the chief has thinned the ranks of beat cops at a time when the department, short several hundred officers, is struggling to lower a booming homicide rate and rein in overtime costs, which swelled to a contemporary record of $18.2 million in fiscal year 2005-2006.

And Chief Fong's decision to bash Cohen and company in an ultrapublic forum has not gone over well with frontline cops throughout the department, eroding morale and fermenting dissatisfaction with the top brass, according to SFPD insiders.

To be sure, the 40-year-old Cohen, who describes himself as a "liberal Berkeley guy," isn't your average cop. Before joining the force he owned a Top Dog restaurant in Oakland and toiled as a video editor at a video production house not far from S.F.'s Hall of Justice. Inspired by a sister who took a job with the Berkeley Police Department, Cohen signed on with the SFPD at age 29.

Early in his career with the SFPD, Cohen patrolled the Tenderloin, known for its drugs, prostitutes, and poverty, where, he says, he encountered an abundance of hostility toward San Francisco's finest. At first he wondered why people were "yelling" and "sneering" at him, but in time he "realized it wasn't me, it was the uniform." The populace, he suggests, viewed him as an emotionless arm of the state, not a human being.

He created a humorous persona to get through to people: MC Powder, the rapping cop. (The name derived from his resemblance — according to one Tenderloin resident — to the lead character in Powder, a 1995 movie centered on the adventures of a baldheaded albino adolescent with mysterious powers.) A former DJ and longtime hip-hop aficionado, Cohen eventually released four CDs as MC Powder, hawking them by word of mouth and over the Web — titles include Powder to the People: Officer X and Knowledge Is Powder.

Though Cohen says he made "many fine arrests" while on the streets, he clearly takes a somewhat unorthodox approach to policing. As he puts it, "A lot of cops say, 'Let's go out there and pull a blue card'" — make a felony arrest. "My thought is always, 'How can we go out there and change somebody's life? How can I change the gap between the community and police?'"

He quickly found his video skills to be in demand around the department. In 1996 the police union, San Francisco Police Officers Association, tapped Cohen to create a half-hour video documentary titled Hearts of the City. At the time the union was bankrolling a ballot initiative that would sweeten benefits for the force, and figured a behind-the-badge-style doc showcasing the human side of police work would help sway voters.

The picture featured Sgt. Kenny Sugrue, a 38-year-old Tenderloin cop with a less-than-macho passion for cultivating roses. The day after Cohen filmed Sugrue, a fatal, stress-induced heart attack felled the sergeant.

After Hearts of the City aired on local TV (and the union won at the polls), police higher-ups gave Cohen a new assignment: He and officer Bob Mammone would launch a new video unit, which would collaborate with the department's Public Affairs office, generating videos both for mass consumption and for internal SFPD use. Cohen went on to spend the next several years shooting and splicing video footage, producing nine documentaries and "dozens" of commercials, as well as filming the political protests that routinely convulse the city. In that role, he got good reviews from his superiors and several commendations for exemplary performance.

Things at the video unit began to change in early 2004 when Fong was elevated to chief. Cohen, whose mother was a reporter and editor with the Contra Costa Times, says he and Fong had conflicting ideas about communicating with the media. He thought the department was best served by talking frankly with journalists, letting them know how a cop might perceive a particular situation, while the chief, he says, "doesn't like the media," and preferred to keep her distance from reporters.

As Cohen recalls it, "Fong came in and tightened the reins," limiting his contact with journalists. "Doing video is an art, and art and law enforcement aren't always compatible." Cohen began agitating for a transfer out of the video unit he'd founded.

By late 2004 Cohen was assigned to Bayview Station, whose officers cover some of the toughest territory in the city, a large swath of land running along the eastern waterfront from the city's southern border up to AT&T Park; the area includes several violence-wracked public housing developments.

Even after his transfer, Cohen continued to tote around a video camera, compiling footage in his spare time. His plan was to produce another 30-minute doc, this one focused on the cops of Bayview Station, and dedicated to Isaac Espinoza, the charismatic officer slain by an assault rifle-wielding thug in April 2004. In addition, Cohen filmed a parodic comedy video to be shown at a station Christmas party and at a retirement shindig for Capt. Rick Bruce.

Cohen certainly didn't expect those images to derail the careers of scores of his colleagues.

In a sober, deliberate tone, Chief Fong addressed the throng of reporters assembled at City Hall on Dec. 7, 2005: "This is a dark day, an extremely dark day in the history of the San Francisco Police Department — for me, as chief, to have to stand here and share with you such egregious, shameful, and despicable acts by members of the San Francisco Police Department."

According to department sources, the video came to the chief's attention when Capt. Bruce's successor, Albert Pardini, shared a DVD of the material with her.

Mayor Newsom concurred, angrily telling the crowd the video featured "skits that mock the African-American community, mock the Asian community, mock the transgender community, and mock women in general."

Newsom continued, "It's shameful. It's offensive. It is sexist. It is homophobic. And it is racist. And we're going to make it end and end immediately." Then the mayor gave the journalists a glimpse at the video vignettes, playing several of them on a computer screen.

In a follow-up interview with KTVU (Channel 2), Newsom said the videos he'd shown the public were only the beginning — other clips were even worse, but couldn't be shown for legal reasons. "These five tapes you've seen are nothing compared to the other tapes, which are remarkably insensitive," he said. He later added, "Wait till you see the dog collars, wait till you see the Abu Ghraib-type of skit that was done with African-American officers in cages. ... There's some really offensive things here."

Of course, what constitutes an offensive slice of digi-cam humor is subjective, since what the mayor finds repugnant some people would probably find amusing. (The legal travails of the late Lenny Bruce, who in the early 1960s faced criminal obscenity charges in San Francisco and elsewhere for his stand-up comedy routines, come to mind.) That said, if you watch the videos the chief and mayor shared with the media, they don't seem so horrendous. They're far milder, for example, than the standard fare on Comedy Central.

Cohen's production, which he'd intended to share with his colleagues at parties for Capt. Bruce's retirement and the winter holidays, is a low-budget, 28-minute, SNL-style affair consisting of a series of short vignettes, some of them backed by a soundtrack of borrowed pop tunes.

In one clip, two white cops pretend to slack off while on duty. Instead of responding to an emergency call, they get out of their cruiser and practice tai-chi, the Chinese meditative art, before visiting a massage parlor, where, the skit implies, they're quite, uh, indisposed.

In another clip, a cop pulls over a female driver and scrutinizes her butt.

In perhaps the most controversial skit, an officer piloting a police cruiser runs over what looks to be a homeless woman and then drives off.

If you watch the vignettes closely, it becomes clear that there's a lot of inside-joking going on. The tai-chi/massage parlor segment seems more like a poke at the officers than some kind of racist commentary on Asian culture; likewise, the traffic cop vignette isn't an ode to testosterone, but rather a satire about a narcissistic male cop.

Sgt. Mike Evanson is the officer who pretends to flatten the lady with his black-and-white. He says the scene was conceived as a spoof on him — the concept being that he's too dim-witted even to notice that he'd run someone down.

"Once I knew they were using me as a practical joke, I figured they could use me to provide laughter for the troops," says Evanson, one of the highest-ranking officers sanctioned in the video scandal. "At no time did I ever think [the videos] were racist, sexist, or homophobic. ... You see more racially, sexually oriented-type material on network TV than you do with these vignettes."

Clad in jeans and a green felt cowboy hat, Evanson, a thick man with a pile of silver hair, says the video was all about laughing a little at a time when cops were confronting appalling levels of violence — notably, a high percentage of the city's 80-plus annual homicides — on a daily basis.

"From my standpoint, the videos were therapy for the officers at Bayview Station," he explains. "As Cohen was putting this stuff together, I saw these hardworking cops unwind."

After six years at Bayview and 18 in the Western Addition, Evanson was suspended without pay for five days and shifted to a desk job at the Hall of Justice in the wake of the video scandal. "You'll find the people who're assigned to Bayview want to be there. They want to help the people," Evanson says. "When they suspended those 24 officers, they took a high percentage of the officers with the knowledge and work ethic to do police work [in Bayview-Hunters Point] off the streets. It affected the whole station and the department as a whole."

Another officer caught in the scandal, who didn't want his name used in this story, expressed extreme displeasure at being sidelined during an ongoing homicide epidemic. "I firmly believe the chief and mayor don't give two shits about anything but their own careers," the cop growls.

The mayor has always insisted that he didn't leave Bayview Station short-staffed, and some outside experts think the officers deserve to be punished. "I doubt there are any vicious propensities, but it's in terribly bad taste," says D.P. Van Blaricom, a former Bellevue, Wash., police chief and nationally recognized expert on police practices. "What they're doing with this video is alienating a part of the community, and police can't afford to alienate anybody." Van Blaricom figures Evanson and any other supervisors should be demoted, saying the sergeant "showed terrible judgment."

Officer Jimmy Lewis disagrees. "The videos had nothing to do with mocking African-Americans, or mocking Asians," says Lewis, who is black and a 25-year department veteran. Like Evanson and Cohen, he's been stuck at a desk since the scandal broke; these days he's running a photocopier in the Records Management Division, essentially purgatory for a street cop.

While speaking to the media, Newsom singled out Lewis, talking about an African-American officer wearing a dog collar, eating out of a dog bowl, and caged like an inmate at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

All of which bothered Lewis, because, according to the cop, Newsom was "embellishing the truth" — and the mayor definitely did not know the back story. Yes, Lewis posed as if he were eating Alpo out of a dog bowl. Yes, he posed with a dog catcher at the Animal Control center. But there was no Abu Ghraib routine or anything resembling it, and the whole thing had nothing to do with race.

It all went back to a dispute between Lewis and a sergeant. In the midst of a heated conversation, Lewis went off on his superior officer, saying, "'I'm not your goddamned dog! I don't want to be treated like a dog. I get treated like a dog by the public. I don't have to take it from you.'"

The incident entered the lore and mythology of Bayview Station, and for months afterward Lewis' friends teased him about it. When Cohen came around with a camera, Lewis clowned himself and acted like a dog.

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."

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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