- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO, March 3 (UPI) — Police Chief Earl Sanders and six other high-ranking officers stepped down Monday after they were indicted for allegedly obstructing an investigation into a street corner brawl involving off-duty officers.

None of the officers formally resigned, although Sanders opted to take a medical leave while his second-in-command officer, two deputy chiefs, a captain, lieutenant and a sergeant agreed to step aside pending the resolution of last week's felony indictments that named 10 officers and threw both the SFPD and Mayor Willie Brown's administration into turmoil.

"Mayor Brown does support the officers' decision to step aside while the legal proceedings take place," P.J. Johnston, a spokesman for Brown, told reporters at a hastily called City Hall news conference. "He understands their need to mount a defense and he hopes they will have their day in court quickly."

The officials who stepped down included two deputy chiefs and Assistant Chief Alex Fagan, whose 23-year-old son, Officer Alex Fagan Jr., was among the trio of SFPD officers who allegedly beat up two civilians during an argument outside a Union Street bar last November. The injuries were relatively minor; however, one of the alleged victims suffered a broken nose.

Deputy Chief Heather Fong, the SFPD's highest-ranking Asian, was elevated to assistant chief where she will replace Fagan as the No. 2 person in the department and, in effect, run the entire department.

The indicted officers will be sidelined pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings against them. They and the other three officers were indicted on obstruction of justice charges for allegedly trying to gloss over the incident and stonewall the department's internal investigation.

"What the indictments say is that no one is above the law in San Francisco," said District Attorney Terrance Hallinan, who last week expressed surprise at the scope of the grand jury indictment and vowed nevertheless to carry out the prosecutions vigorously.

Sanders' lawyer, John Burris, had told San Francisco television station KTVU earlier Monday that Sanders would remain on the job because there was no indication that the indictment would interfere with his duties, at least in the short run.

"Our position is that he could do it (stay on the job) and should do it," said Burris. "An indictment is an allegation. It's not proof of any crime being committed and he should be allowed to keep working at his job as the case works its way through the legal system."

Sanders' ultimate fate Monday rests in the hands of the Police Commission, which could suspend or fire the chief. The commission had not decided whether to meet Monday afternoon as scheduled or postpone the meeting until later in the week.

Brown appoints the members of the commission and has been critical of Hallinan's probe of the allegations. He has called the investigation "political grandstanding" that unnecessarily damaged the SFPD's entire command.

The two have been in different camps in recent San Francisco elections, which some observers of the often-bruising local political scene in "The City" say has made Hallinan particularly vulnerable to Brown's ire over what were seen as unnecessary attacks on Sanders and Fagan, who Brown had personally promoted.

"We take note of the fact that the indictments are still sealed and the district attorney still has not chosen to inform anyone as to the nature of the charges," Brown's spokesman said. "They, like everyone else, will have to wait."

Hallinan has indicated that the SFPD's transgressions were primarily in the form of superficial reports, failure to make the three officers and other witnesses available to investigators, and the abrupt reassignment of the lieutenant who was in charge of the internal investigation.

"It has almost Watergate-like aspects," Hallinan told KTVU, indicating a cover-up nature of the investigation.

The allegations stemmed from the immediate aftermath of the fight on Union Street. Hallinan said the officers called to the scene pulled over a pickup truck that the victims pointed out as being driven by their assailants.

After the vehicle was stopped, the trio was allegedly whisked away to a nearby station before the victims were given a chance to identify them. Once there, the off-duty officers were allegedly allowed to change their clothes and drink large amounts of water — presumably to clear their systems of alcohol before taking a sobriety test.

"Nothing was done in a normal fashion," Hallinan said.

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