Earl’s Last Laugh

Exiled in retirement after Fajitagate, ex–Police Chief Earl Sanders has re-emerged with a fresh account of the infamous Zebra murders. And his critics are on the warpath.

Berkeley civil rights attorney Robert Gnaizda, who was lead counsel in the case, concurs about Sanders. "I would call him a visionary. The lawsuit never would have occurred without Earl Sanders' leadership, and never would have succeeded without his courage."

But the record of the November 1978 trial (about which the book offers little detail), preserved among boxes of transcripts and other materials at the U.S. National Archives in San Bruno, reveals a less-flattering role for Sanders than the trial's outcome suggests.

As an articulate, experienced trial witness in police matters who had put himself through Golden Gate University to earn a master's degree in public administration while serving as a homicide detective, Sanders was carefully chosen by Gnaizda to be the lead witness when the OFJ case, after years of pretrial wrangling, finally got its day in court.

As things turned out, he was OFJ's only witness.

In testifying for parts of three days, Sanders told a compelling story of personal mistreatment while describing an atmosphere of epidemic racial intolerance among SFPD's mostly white officers. The OFJ legal team had brought in a bulletin board from the homicide bureau where Sanders worked. It contained photos and drawings posted by officers portraying African-Americans and other minorities in unflattering ways. One such item, depicting Sanders, bore the caption, "Purse Snatch Detail."

Cross-examined by then-Deputy City Attorney Ken Harrington, Sanders was asked if he had ever engaged in ethnic teasing while in the bureau. "No, sir. I don't take part in that sort of thing," he said. Pressed, Sanders responded, "No, sir. It is my policy not to engage in ethnic jokes, ethnic ribbing, with mixed [racial] company, because it has been my experience in the police department and throughout life that if you engage in those kinds of things, you leave yourself open to other people." At the suggestion that such teasing was part of ordinary police camaraderie, Sanders shot back, "It is not part of the camaraderie that I participated in."

But there was a bombshell.

After Sanders' first day on the stand, a patrolman phoned Harrington to say he had some items the deputy city attorney might be interested in. They were photos of racially provocative skits presented at an off-hours police soiree in the early '70s. The bash had been put together by a group of cops who called themselves the Second Platoon, to commemorate their participation in helping to quell the 1968 student riots at San Francisco State University.

Among the photos was one of Sanders dressed in drag, as a black woman wearing a blond wig and playing the role of the wife in an interracial marriage. In another skit he was done up as an African witch doctor, holding a spear with a skeleton on the end, and with a tiger skin slung over his shoulder.

Whatever usefulness his earlier testimony may have served appeared to evaporate. Back on the witness stand, Sanders acknowledged that, as a member of the event's entertainment committee, he had helped create the skits relying on racial and ethnic humor of the kind he had earlier criticized under oath. Court records reveal that other skits depicted an African-American male employed by the "Black Hand Janitorial Service," and a lazy Latino male sitting under a cactus drinking tequila. In another, a Japanese-American cop provided an unflattering imitation of former SFSU President (and later, U.S. senator) S.I. Hayakawa.

"Sanders was absolutely destroyed" as a witness, says Harrington, now in private practice. He and Philip Ward, another deputy city attorney involved in the case, insist that the judge (who is now deceased) expressed as much in chambers after Sanders' testimony and before placing the trial on an already planned recess. (It's a recollection that Gnaizda does not share.) As best people can remember, Sanders' courtroom meltdown didn't attract a lot of media attention, perhaps because of something else that happened. The day he took the stand, the Jonestown massacre, the murder-suicide in the Guyana jungle that claimed the lives of hundreds of devotees from San Francisco's Peoples Temple, dominated headlines.

During the break in the trial, newly resigned Supervisor Dan White slipped into City Hall and shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, leaving the city in further turmoil. In early December, Peckham halted the proceedings. Citing the need for the city to heal its divisions, he urged the sides to settle the lawsuit. The result, months later, was the consent decree.

Three decades later, Sanders' self-proclaimed hero's role in the OFJ matter has, predictably, stirred old rivalries. "When I think of Earl Sanders as a civil rights hero," declares Harrington, "I just want to laugh."

Sanders defends his Officers for Justice role, dismissing those who would seek to diminish it "as the same voices who've tried to discredit me for years."

To critics, he may have embellished his civil rights portfolio and placed himself too front-and-center in the Zebra probe. But to others, he's a hero. "He's a person of impeccable integrity," says Berkeley civil rights lawyer James Chanin, for whose clients Sanders has sometimes testified as an expert witness in police misconduct cases. "As far as I'm concerned, Earl calls them as he sees them."

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