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Fong got the news that Newsom might be preparing to sack her via a text message from an aide while in China as part of an official city delegation, those familiar with the matter say. In typical fashion, she showed little emotion when confronted by reporters at a police awards ceremony the day after her return. She gave a brief statement that she served at the pleasure of the mayor and that it would be his decision for her to remain.
But if Newsom was intent on pulling the plug, he was met with unaccustomed resistance. Shortly after Fong's return from the China trip, the seven-member Police Commission (four of whose members, including Lee, are mayoral appointees) privately came to her rescue, drafting a statement of support. Lee, a former Bill Clinton appointee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and a prominent player in the city's Asian-American community, helped lead the charge. The vote, during a closed-door session permissible to discuss personnel matters, was six to zero, with then-Commissioner Joe Veronese, a Newsom appointee, absent.
By law, the mayor (as well as the Police Commission) has the authority to arbitrarily remove a police chief. But for Newsom to do so over the expressed wishes of his own appointees unwilling to toe the line would have been politically awkward. Plus, those familiar with the play say, the mayor would have incurred the wrath of the Asian-American community.
"We probably did as much as anyone to stop that process from happening," says commission president Sparks, referring to the panel's pre-emptive strike. Although she's in the chief's corner now, Sparks once had doubts about whether Fong was up to the job. "I've gotten a better chance to see how intellectual and how thoughtful she is, and I've become comfortable with her quiet leadership style," she says.
Among Fong's associates at the Hall of Justice, including some who refer to her relationship with the mayor as "embarrassingly subservient," the word that Newsom planned to move her out came as little surprise.
Several current and former upper-echelon SFPD officers say that the mayor, despite public expressions of support, routinely treats Fong condescendingly. "I've been in meetings where the mayor has threatened to fire her, and has ranted and raved at her in front of the entire command staff," says a former deputy chief, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's more than condescension; it's open disdain, and she lets him roll over her."
Another ex-high-level cop describes a meeting at City Hall two years ago at which Newsom made a move for water. Fong quickly fetched a pitcher and began pouring for the mayor and other politicos. "It humiliated members of the command staff who were there," says the source, who was also among the attendees. "That scene spoke volumes: that the mayor thinks of his police chief as a waitress, and that she clearly doesn't understand her position."
Such portrayals are counter to Newsom's public show of support for Fong, whom he usually makes a habit of praising on ceremonial occasions. While gearing up for an expected run for governor in 2010, Newsom's having appointed an Asian-American woman as police chief, along with his appointments of women as fire chief and port director, is often touted by his entourage as indicative of his progressive credentials.
If the relationship between the two is as distant as some insiders insist, neither of them will talk. Despite numerous requests by SF Weekly, the mayor's office declined to discuss the chief for this article.
That Fong's job status remains the stuff of speculation four years into her tenure may have been inevitable, considering the circumstances under which she became the city's top cop and her unorthodox, low-key management style.
Appointed by Newsom in 2004 in the wake of Fajitagate, in which then-Chief Earl Sanders; his top assistant, Alex Fagan Sr.; and other SFPD brass were briefly under criminal indictment, Fong ascended almost by default. Although charges against them were later dropped, the men were accused of covering up an off-duty street brawl involving Fagan's son and two other rookie cops that allegedly began as an argument over a bag of fajitas. Fong was one of only three members of the command staff untainted by the scandal.
For a new mayor seeking to make a bold statement about reforming SFPD's old-boy network, Newsom's choice of a publicity-averse, minority woman with a straight-arrow reputation seemed made to order.
The chief's supporters say she's lived up to her billing. "I think Heather Fong will be seen historically as one of the great police chiefs of San Francisco," says Peter Keane, dean emeritus of the law school at Golden Gate University and a former police commissioner. He credits Fong with uprooting the Dirty Harry mentality long identified with SFPD's old guard, and instilling "professionalism in the department that is beyond where it ever was."
It's a view that doesn't sit well with Fong's detractors. "That's nonsense," says Rick Bruce, a former deputy chief whom Fong demoted and who retired from the force as a captain in 2005. "The popular line is that Heather Fong is being undermined by those closest to her; that she's fighting the old boys' network. I was there. There's no undermining of her. What she's done is shut herself off not only from the rank-and-file, but from her own command level people, with whom she barely communicates."