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Although the chief's understated response drew praise from Newsom, who also opposes capital punishment, it gained Fong instant animosity in the ranks, helping to brand her, legitimately or not, as weak and ineffectual.
Another incident may have helped to cement that reputation among fellow officers. It involved an impromptu ceremony of sorts at the Police Commission after a police officer shot and killed kidnapping suspect Cammerin Boyd following a high-speed chase that ended in the Western Addition. The killing remains controversial, with eyewitnesses insisting Boyd had his hands in the air when he was shot after being ordered out of his car.
At a meeting of the police panel, one then-commissioner asked the audience to stand for a moment of silence in recognition of Boyd and others who had died at the hands of the SFPD. Cops, including those watching the proceedings on closed-circuit TV from station houses, were aghast when their chief sprang to her feet. "I think that's actually when a lot of people [on the force] gave up on her," one longtime cop says. "People in blue were dumbfounded."
Fong's stock among cops arguably hit a new low as the result of her handling of the so-called Videogate scandal — stemming from a spoof offered as self-parody by cops at the Bayview station for a 2005 Christmas party. With police as the cast and intended for private viewing, the video (portions of which soon turned up on YouTube) poked politically incorrect fun at women, Asians, blacks, homosexuals, and others.
Fong's response after it leaked was to throw the book at seven police officers, including the video's creator, Andrew Cohen. She banished them to "nonpublic contact" jobs and meted out less severe discipline to a couple of dozen others. (The seven are still waiting to answer misconduct charges before the Police Commission.)
But many cops, including some who agree the video was in poor taste, say Fong was manipulated by the mayor into overreacting. "This is a dark day, an extremely dark day in the history of the San Francisco Police Department," the chief intoned at a news conference called by the mayor to denounce the video.
"The video was a stupid thing to do, but was it the worst thing since the Nazis? I don't think so," police union chief Delagnes says. "It's just another example of her pandering to the mayor."
Fong's response to Videogate has cost her in other ways. Cohen, whom she relegated to a record-keeping job at the Hall of Justice — he's out on disability after a mishap involving a file cart — has gone from obscure cop to cause célèbre with his Inside the SFPD blog. (He used it to embarrass the chief in June with the revelation — quickly seized upon by local media — that Fong had violated department policy by failing to keep her firearm certification current.)
Widely read within police and City Hall circles, the blog relentlessly ridicules Fong — something her uniformed detractors, regardless of how they feel about Cohen, say is further evidence of her having lost control of the troops.
Among other things, it has helped to popularize the chief's nickname within the department: "Feather Fong."
Mild-mannered and deferential, Fong is the antithesis of Hollywood's version of a big-city police chief. In a department whose chiefs have customarily come from the ranks of hard-nosed street cops, often with backgrounds as narcotics officers or homicide detectives, Fong spent only a few years as a beat cop on the not-so-mean streets of the Richmond before climbing the career ladder as an administrative taskmaster. Also unlike some of her profane predecessors, hers is the persona of a Girl Scout leader. People who've known her for years say they've never heard her swear.
She maintains her distance, even among associates with whom she's worked for years. Fong has a longtime boyfriend who is an inspector in the investigations bureau, but they are seldom seen together socially within police circles, department insiders say.
"She doesn't display her personal side easily," one captain says. "I didn't learn that her mother had died until a couple of months after it happened." Another Hall of Justice insider recalls a rare sit-down interview with a newspaper reporter shortly after she became chief in which Fong used the "I don't discuss my personal life" response to avoid divulging the name of her pet pit bull. (The dog has since died.) Yet she famously goes out of her way to show kindness to strangers, lending an ear to homeless people and the occasional crackpot who approaches her outside Police Commission hearings and elsewhere.
Her roots in the Chinese community go deep. The younger of two daughters born to Chinese immigrants, Fong grew up in a flat on Bannam Place, a short alley near the intersection of Union and Grant. Her father co-owned a grocery in Oakland's Chinatown until his death in 1997. Her late mother, to whom friends say Fong was especially close, was a legal secretary.
"Heather is an inspirational figure in ways that others [outside the Chinese community] have a hard time understanding," Yvonne Lee says. "When people in the Asian community refer to her as chief, it's with a special reverence for what's she's accomplished."