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.

About three dozen people are gathered at the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center for a meeting of the San Francisco Police Commission, and the questions they're hurling at Police Chief Heather Fong follow a familiar pattern. To put it in a nutshell, the prevailing sentiment is that there is too much crime and not enough cops.

The ever-polite, soft-spoken Fong listens intently before giving lengthy answers about the city's crime problem not unlike others she has offered during her four years as chief. She arrived 45 minutes late, looking gaunt and tired, having rushed from a news conference at the Hall of Justice where she announced the arrest of a suspect in a triple slaying — a man and his two sons gunned down in broad daylight in the Excelsior District a couple of days earlier.

A woman in the audience asks when her neighborhood can expect to see more police on the street. That elicits a serpentine, wonky recitation from the chief about police academy cutbacks, officer retention rates, and budget constraints. "That's the long answer," Fong concludes, leaving Police Commission president Theresa Sparks to coax the short version from her: "We will continue to do the best job we can, but we may not be able to have as many officers in the stations."

Jake Poehls
Police Commission president Theresa Sparks
Jake Poehls
Police Commission president Theresa Sparks
Chief Fong at a news conference with Mayor Newsom. Critics say she is too subservient.
AP/Jeff Chiu
Chief Fong at a news conference with Mayor Newsom. Critics say she is too subservient.
Police Commissioner (and Fong supporter) Yvonne Lee
Jake Poehls
Police Commissioner (and Fong supporter) Yvonne Lee
Police Officers Association president Gary Delagnes (seated, center) surrounded  by cops at a 2004 event. He complains that Fong isn’t a strong leader.
AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Police Officers Association president Gary Delagnes (seated, center) surrounded by cops at a 2004 event. He complains that Fong isn’t a strong leader.
Police Chief Heather Fong
Jake Poehls
Police Chief Heather Fong

It wasn't what anyone wanted to hear. But then few things seem as they should be these days when it comes to the SFPD, which is burdened by a personnel shortage and a $338 million city budget deficit that has crimped ambitions to add more street cops even as a wave of retirements looms among a generation of officers in their 50s.

And those may be some of Fong's more solvable problems.

Both rank-and-file cops and veteran administrators who point to her detached, low-key management style describe the police department as adrift, and complain that morale has plummeted to a post-Fajitagate low.

Indeed, there have been rumblings for months that the chief — the first Asian-American woman to head a big city police force, and whose relationship with Mayor Gavin Newsom, who appointed her, is said to be strained — may be on her way out.

When Newsom demanded routine letters of resignation last year from citywide appointees in the expectation of an administration spring-cleaning, more than a few City Hall observers expected Fong to be among the first casualties. Cops have perpetually grumbled that she isn't a strong leader, some former members of her command staff were widely suspected of plotting against her, and the Board of Supervisors has become emboldened to meddle in previously sacrosanct police policy, including, most recently, pushing for more foot patrols.

And then there's the department's image problem as incompetent crime-solvers. SFPD already had one of the lowest homicide solve-rates — barely one in four — of any big city police department in the country when Fong became chief. That has scarcely improved on her watch. Meanwhile, the murder rate in San Francisco is stuck near a 15-year plateau. As this article went to press, the 64 homicides in the city thus far this year were on pace to eclipse last year's official count of 98.

With the help of the Police Commission, which may have saved Fong by throwing its support behind her last year amid rumors that the mayor was about to dump her, the chief appears to have successfully dodged a bullet.

Her backers, including heavy hitters in the city's Asian-American community, where she is enormously popular, insist that she'll be okay, and dismiss the discontent from within the department as the last gasps of the SFPD's old guard. "Unfortunately, there's a lot of resentment of Heather for who she is, without regard for what she's accomplished. She'll be fine," says longtime friend Henry Der, who headed the advocacy group Chinese for Affirmative Action when Fong joined the force in the 1970s.

But others aren't so sure. "Her standing at City Hall is virtually zero," says Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin, who professes to like Fong personally. "She's a very good person, she means well, and she works her ass off, but it's not working, and I don't think many people would argue otherwise."

Considering the SFPD's lingering crime-solving problems and Fong's unpopularity among rank-and-file cops, longtime observers express surprise that the mayor hasn't opted for a new chief. "It's like watching your pitcher serve up one home run ball after another and not seeing the manager come out of the dugout," says one veteran cop, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Anticipation for a change of chief heightened last September, in advance of Newsom's second term, after his en masse request for resignation letters. (After holding off until only a few hours before the deadline imposed by Newsom, Fong dutifully complied.) Having everyone lay their letters on the table was considered a way for the mayor to tidy up his administration by accepting the resignations of a few key officials with whom he was unhappy. Speculation at City Hall was that Fong was at the top of his would-be hit list.

Among those who considered that rumor to be true was the chief, say several people close to her. "She conducted herself in an exemplary fashion under the most stressful of circumstances," says Police Commissioner Yvonne Lee, a huge Fong supporter. "I know that it wasn't easy for her.

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."

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.

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."

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.

Its slew of studies, having to do with everything from recruitment and training to staffing and operations, is expected to wrap up in the coming months as the prelude for an expected overhaul of the department, with the mayor, the supervisors, and the Police Commission all playing roles in shaping changes.

Fong's detractors are already speculating that any such overhaul will include a change of chiefs. Although not predicting it, even Theresa Sparks, the Police Commission president and Fong supporter, suggests that "if there is a correct time for this chief to be replaced or to retire," it will likely be in the aftermath of the consulting firm's recommendations.

As for Fong, Sparks says, "I know she's getting tired of all the politics. It's taking a toll on her."

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