The Chief Is In (for Now)

With homicide cases going unsolved and morale in the police department sinking, Heather Fong's days as chief may be numbered.

Every Thanksgiving for 20 years, Fong has been a fixture at Self Help for the Elderly, serving up turkey dinners until the last drumstick disappears with no thought of publicity, says Anni Chung, who directs the Chinatown-based organization. "Heather's really a social worker at heart," says Chung, who has known the chief since she foot-patrolled Clement Street in the late '70s. (Fong has a master's in social work from San Francisco State, which she acquired after joining the force.)

Even then, despite — literally — being an SFPD poster girl for minority recruitment after graduating from the Police Academy in 1977, Fong was never comfortable in the limelight, Henry Der says, and never sought credit or attention for helping break SFPD color lines as one of the first Asian women on the force.

Such humility — along with some luck — may explain Fong's almost invisible ascent through the ranks while performing a variety of vital but unglamorous tasks. The first of these, while still in academy training, was when she was tapped to transcribe hundreds of hours of audiotapes from wiretaps of Cantonese-speaking gang members to help solve the Golden Dragon Massacre, the bloodiest homicide in San Francisco history, in which five people were killed and 11 wounded at the Chinatown eatery.

She handled similarly low-profile jobs during most of the '80s and '90s. Even when former chief Fred Lau made Fong a captain in 1994, she was put in charge of the department's planning section rather than asked to head a police station.

When Newsom tapped Fong to lead the police department, she was billed as a reformer who would turn its entrenched white-male-dominated order, long dominated by Irish and Italian cops, on its head, and infuse a department crippled by scandal and stuck in malaise with new energy.

But if that was the intent, it appears many within SFPD didn't get the memo, especially with respect to the department's Achilles heel: solving murders.

As if the low solve rates weren't bad enough, in recent months the department has become the butt of jokes for its handling (or mishandling) of several high-profile cases.

Last December, in what came to be called the Cadaver Van Case, cops waited eight days before searching a Ford van hauled to a police impound yard and finding the body of Leonard Milo Hoskins, even though cadaver dogs brought to where the van had been parked in Mission Terrace had indicated something dead was inside.

In the meantime, two suspects in Hoskins' killing fled to Mexico. They were later apprehended, but through no effort by the SFPD: Incredibly, a San Diego–area do-gooder who read about the case tracked down the accused killers in Baja California and had them turned over to Mexican police for extradition.

And then there's the bizarre case of Hugues de la Plaza, who was found dead in his Hayes Valley apartment in June 2007. Detectives first surmised that despite neighbors hearing what sounded like a struggle, the French citizen had stabbed himself three times in the chest, then washed and hid the knife before collapsing on the living room floor.

De la Plaza's death wasn't included in last year's official murder count because the medical examiner and police have yet to classify it as a homicide, which has the victim's family and friends livid. "It's absolutely preposterous," says his former girlfriend, Melissa Nix.

However, his death is considered murder — in France. In June, a French government investigator and several assistants swooped into San Francisco, resulting in still more embarrassment to Fong and the department. "It was like some United Nations delegation parachuting into a Third World country," one cop fumes. Fong put on a brave face, insisting that the French weren't taking over the investigation, but merely contributing to it.

Less publicized is the fact that when the French investigators went home they took the forensics evidence with them, something Supervisor Aaron Peskin calls "simply outrageous."

The homicide meltdown is one reason some insiders at City Hall and elsewhere speculate that, despite the Police Commission intervention last fall, Fong's days as chief may be numbered.

After all, in a 2004 radio interview he may now regret, Newsom once said that if the surge of killings in the city didn't abate, his critics ought to launch a campaign to recall him from office. His aides later insisted that the mayor was speaking tongue-in-cheek. But with a potential race for governor looming, some are privately suggesting that Newsom may ultimately have to choose between offending some key local constituencies, or risk appearing soft on crime once he starts campaigning in earnest, should he decide to run.

Meanwhile, even some of Fong's supporters expect the question of her future to come to a head soon.

A Washington, D.C.–based research firm that specializes in helping police departments improve their operations began a top-to-bottom evaluation of the SFPD last year. What began two years ago as an initiative of the mayor's Office of Criminal Justice to seek advice from the Police Executive Research Forum about how to recruit, train, and deploy cops following discipline issues involving use of force has morphed into a comprehensive review of practically all facets of departmental operations.

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