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One thing few people question is Fong's work ethic. She is said to routinely put in 12-hour days, and rarely takes time off. On one occasion during recent budget talks, the chief stayed at City Hall until 4 a.m., and was back at the office by 10 a.m. for a round of appointments, according to Commissioner Lee. "If she has a character flaw, it's that she works herself to the bone," says longtime friend Anni Chung.
Chiefs of police routinely attend conferences and seminars on the taxpayers' dime. Fong uses vacation days to attend such events, and at her own expense, friends say. During one such trip a couple of years ago, the chief caused a stir after word leaked that she had checked into a hospital on the East Coast. Although Fong characteristically refused to talk about it, friends say the problem was exhaustion.
Yet her critics, including some who've observed her closely for several years, describe the chief as insular and isolated, a policy wonk who spends hours in her office on the fourth floor of the Hall of Justice poring over administrative minutiae.
Intensely private, she is said to have few if any confidantes, even among her top in-house commanders, and is distant from those in the field. Says one captain, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal: "She holds a quarterly meeting with the 26 or 27 of us [captains], but never really engages. It's always very scripted. She uses a lot of platitudes. She doesn't seek suggestions."
One area where Fong has kept her own counsel is in her dealings with the news media, which she studiously avoids whenever possible, something subordinates say has hurt the SFPD's already battered image. Staffers, friends, police commissioners, and even the mayor have taken turns goading Fong to assume a more front-and-center media role, to no avail, department sources say.
Meanwhile, some in the department bristle at Fong's willingness to surrender control of SFPD media matters to the mayor's office. For a time, Newsom even assigned a former aide — David Chai, now chief of staff to Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums — to coordinate the SFPD's press strategy with the mayor's office, department insiders say. (As part of that move, those insiders say, efforts to rehabilitate Fong as a more media-friendly figure met with little success.)
"It appears to be just not in her to deal with the press, and I think transparency and accountability has suffered as a result," says Sherman Ackerson, now retired, who handled public affairs for years under Chief Fred Lau.
Those who know Fong say that besides her natural proclivity to avoid the spotlight, she is distrustful of the media. Early in her tenure, she let it be known that she thought the department had become too chummy with the press, department sources say.
Insiders say Fong tried to change an SFPD general order to officially ban field commanders and others from speaking to the media without her consent. That fizzled, however, after it was pointed out that such a move would require a vote of the Police Commission, and might kick up a storm.
Attempts to interview the chief for this article were fruitless, despite numerous requests. A department spokesman held out the possibility of an interview for more than a month. "She's leaning toward doing it" and "She's still checking things out" were repeated refrains. In the end, Fong took a pass without explanation. "It's just who she is," the aide said.
The same aloofness that has made Fong something of a mystery to the public despite her years as chief has also complicated her relationship with rank-and-file cops. "She's a good person, and I think she puts tremendous effort toward the job, but she's lost this department," says Gary Delagnes, who heads the powerful Police Officers Association. "She's not the kind of leader anyone wants to follow up a hill."
Delagnes and others describe the chief as "absent," even while acknowledging that she is almost always on the job. "She buries herself in bureaucratic stuff, but as far as being the face and voice of the department, as far as inspiring anyone or speaking up for cops, she's not even on the radar screen," he says.
Former Chief Earl Sanders, under whom Fong served in a variety of administrative roles, including deputy chief, calls his former protégé "extremely intelligent" and "someone who can break down every line of a [Police Department] budget — but as far as being an ass-kicking, take-charge–type leader, that's not Heather."
For many in the rank and file, Fong stumbled badly from the start. On the eve of her appointment in 2004, popular young officer Isaac Espinoza was gunned down in the street while working a gang intervention detail in the Bayview. His killing shocked the city and devastated the department, prompting the mayor to postpone the announcement of Fong's appointment for a day.
Three days after the murder, District Attorney Kamala Harris, a death penalty opponent, announced she would not seek the death penalty for Espinoza's accused killer. Cops were livid, and turned to their new chief expecting to hear strong pushback. But Fong's voice was nowhere to be heard. Instead, she took a quieter approach — signing a letter disagreeing with Harris's decision.