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The chief, the mayor, and the meddlers

Bennett Cohen | December 28, 2007 | Story

Heather Fong couldn't have been looking forward to her first Police Commission meeting in September. Just the week before, Mayor Gavin Newsom, his reelection virtually certain, had gotten a jump-start on his second term by demanding resignation letters from all his department heads and appointees. Anonymous sources had told the Chronicle that the police chief—a rock star in the Asian community and one of the most popular public officials in San Francisco—was high on the list of people he wanted to dump. To Fong, this public airing of laundry must have been humiliating. Utterly devoted to the chain of command, with a deep aversion to both publicity and confrontation, she's the kind of good soldier who might well have quit without a fuss if asked. Yet she only learned about Newsom's move while she was in China on city business, via a text message from a staffer. Had the mayor chosen the mass resignations as a way to avoid singling her out and angering her Chinese supporters? Why jerk her around?

Commission members, meanwhile, had also turned on Fong and her boss, frustrated by a string of SPFD missteps over the past year and the lack of any effective crime-fighting strategy out of either the chief's or the mayor's office. Then came the disturbing news that the city's homicide rate was up 17 percent, on track to being the highest since 1993. With Fong's lame-duck status now painfully public, the commission had finally succeeded in getting a review of her job performance on the evening's agenda. But first they had other business they wanted to discuss, like her surprise reorganization of her command staff on the eve of her China trip—in particular, her transfer of a very popular Ingleside captain to Taraval did not sit well—and two studies by outside consultants trying to figure out what it will take to drag the department into the 21st century.

All in all, it wasn't exactly a happy homecoming from China. Yet in her quiet, skittish, Fong-like way, the chief looked remarkably relaxed, maybe even relieved that the turmoil of the past year had finally come to a head.

Thirty years ago, when Fong joined the SFPD as one of its first Asian female officers, she was thought of by her admiring if condescending colleagues as “pretty Heather.” She was so lovely, in fact, with wavy, shoulder-length hair, a slender frame, and a gigantic smile, that she modeled in recruiting posters for the department.

Now, after three and a half years in what is arguably the toughest job in San Francisco, the 51-year-old Fong is hollow-cheeked and thin to the point of gauntness; a couple of years ago, on police business in Washington, D.C., she got so sick (she told people it was an asthma attack) that she reportedly had to be hospitalized. This air of fragility (her nickname around the department is “Feather”) has sometimes proved useful to her as chief, deflecting critics and protecting her from the usual, go-for-the-jugular style of San Francisco politics. “Nobody wants to be seen as beating up on this poor little Asian woman,” one Hall of Justice insider says.

But at the Police Commission meeting I attended that September night, Fong didn't seem frail or evasive so much as long-suffering, watching her authority slowly being picked apart, yet still trying to accommodate the commissioners intent on questioning her every move. At one point, a homeless man (at least, that's the way he appeared to me) who clearly has a major crush on the chief started babbling about Newsom's resignation letters—the only person in the room with the nerve to bring up the subject. When he said he hoped she wouldn't resign, a hint of sadness seemed to flicker across her face. Then, after he finished talking, her polite, sweet smile returned, with a little nod of thank-you.

It was a sad coda for a chief who has never been able to articulate what those close to her know: how deeply she cares for her department and the safety of the city. By the time you read this, Fong may already be gone. Yet it seemed fitting, too, that the strongest words of appreciation for one of the SFPD's true pioneers were coming from a complete outsider. That's because insiders understand the nature of the paralysis gripping the department and, by extension, the city itself. Imagine a scenario where poor morale and a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't attitude among cops leads to a passive kind of policing—“depolicing,” to use the wonky term—where many crimes that could be stopped are allowed to happen. That is the road many believe San Francisco is on, with no clear plan for changing course.

When, just weeks into his first term, Newsom appointed Fong as the city's first female police chief, her gentle, steady mien seemed to be exactly what the department needed. The SFPD circa 2004 was like a battered child, wary and bruised after Fajitagate, the scandal that began when a trio of young, drunk, off-duty cops got into a head-scratchingly foolish fight with two other guys over Mexican takeout and soon embroiled virtually the entire top brass. (Full disclosure: I had an inside view of the scandal, which unfolded as I was talking with then-chief Earl Sanders about writing a book. I came to believe that the conspiracy charges were bogus. But that's another story.) Fong, so straitlaced and squeaky-clean that it's hard to find anyone who's ever heard her swear, is also “very smart,” says a former colleague. Although she was then a plugged-in deputy chief, she was one of the few higher-ups to avoid getting caught in the controversy; when Sanders and six other officers were indicted for conspiring to cover up the November 2002 brawl, she ran the department for the next eight days. In truth, there wasn't much for Fong to do during that grim week except rally the troops at a meeting or two and promise the city that the crisis would have no effect on public safety. But she performed with just the right mixture of calm and forcefulness, gaining influential fans. “She really proved herself then,'' Newsom would later recall. “There [was] all this chaos, and she just really stood out.''

The period immediately following Fajitagate did little to heal the department, and most blamed the new, volatile chief, Alex Fagan Sr. Although he was among those indicted (indeed, his rookie son's drunken behavior had triggered the whole sorry affair), Fagan was named Sanders' successor anyway by Mayor Willie Brown (the two go way back). The next few months were tumultuous, filled with infighting and intrigue, until the newly elected Newsom elbowed Fagan aside. By then, it was clear that the department needed major reform—starting with a housecleaning in the upper ranks, which had long been dominated by old-school cops whose attitudes toward policing reminded critics of the SFPD's Dirty Harry era three decades before. “These were guys that, in the '70s, felt they could get away with anything, and they did,” says Peter Keane, a former public defender, law school dean, and police commissioner. “For them to be the role model for the department was poisonous.” Gary Delagnes, the blunt-spoken former narcotics cop who heads the Police Officers Association (POA), recalls Newsom telling him what he wanted in a police chief: “He was looking for the anti-Fagan.”

Fong had served as Fagan's assistant chief. Yet she and her boss could not have been more different. He represented the old SFPD, dominated by Irish and Italians, where it was common for several generations from the same family to serve side by side; the place used to be so insular that cops joked the only two people the chief answered to were the mayor and the archbishop.

Fong, on the other hand, was literally the face of what the SFPD would become. Her father was a Chinese immigrant who owned a grocery store in Oakland; her mother was a legal secretary, also with Chinese roots. Raised with her older sister in a flat on the edge of North Beach, Fong hardly ever left her neighborhood except to attend an all-girls Catholic school in the Western Addition. At home, she told the Chronicle in one of the very few personal interviews she's given, her parents insisted she speak only Cantonese.

Despite this extraordinarily sheltered upbringing, she was drawn to police work in high school, passing the police exam in 1974, the first year women could take it. (At the time, there were only two Asian American and zero female officers on the force.) But because of her age, Fong wasn't allowed into the Police Academy until three years later, earning her badge in 1977. Her first big break came within weeks. A Chinatown gang went on a shooting rampage at the Golden Dragon restaurant, killing 5 and injuring 11, and investigators needed Cantonese speakers to help translate hundreds of hours of wiretap tapes. Fong eagerly volunteered, spending months in a windowless office on the kind of mind-numbing task that would have sent a cowboy cop screaming from the department. Her meticulous efforts helped convict four people in what remains the largest shooting in the city's history.

Those achievements set the tone for the rest of Fong's career. Her predecessors as chief had tough-guy pedigrees—her mentor, Fred Lau, had trained for the “Tac Squad” (the precursor to today's SWAT team), and Sanders was a hard-charging homicide detective for 24 years (he also led the battle to integrate the department). But Fong spent only a couple of years walking a beat on Clement Street before taking a series of crucial yet under-the-radar jobs: as one of the Police Academy's first female instructors, an investigator on child abuse cases, and the head of the department's planning section, among others. “In my profession, there are times when there is work that is more of a support nature that needs to be done,” Fong explained soon after her appointment. “It's not fun work, but you do it because it's important. You know it's key to the overall function of the department.” She got her first and only command post when Lau put her in charge of the station that oversees Chinatown and surrounding neighborhoods in 1996, staying a couple of years. She earned a reputation for being hardworking and cordial, with a strong ethical core, if sometimes overly wrapped up in the minutiae of police work and lacking in street smarts. Sanders, who named Fong his administrative chief, saw her intellectual talents as unparalleled. “If you have a book on it, or a procedure, she'll excel. If you want a budget balanced, you go to Heather Fong.” She even designed the “incident report” used by SFPD cops to this day. But her careful, micromanaging ways could also drive colleagues crazy. “She can't make a frigging decision,” an unnamed officer once told the Chronicle. “We could ask her to sign a check, and she has to think about it for two weeks.”

Fong's persona may have been that of the nicest, smartest girl in the class, but her rise through the SFPD ranks was so sure-footed that it's hard to believe ambition didn't partially drive her. “She's very good at behind-the-scenes department politics,” says a Hall of Justice insider who's watched Fong survive and thrive—and take advantage of opportunities to advance her career when her rivals derailed theirs.

After ousting Fagan, Newsom announced a nationwide search for a replacement, hiring the same firm that recruited New York City's superstar ex-commissioner, William Bratton, who was widely credited with turning around that city's crime rate in the mid-1990s, to take over the Los Angeles Police Department. But the SFPD had hired an outside chief only once before, when George Moscone brought in Oakland chief Charles Gain in 1976. His tenure, remembered mostly for the slayings of Moscone and Harvey Milk, and his decision to paint patrol cars baby-blue, was not considered a success. It's also unclear how many outside candidates would even have been open to the job.

Unlike other major departments, which have gone through institutional reforms that dismantled most, if not all, of the political controls over them, the SFPD remains dominated by the city's political machine, says Joseph D. McNamara, the former San Jose police chief and an expert on policing issues at the Hoover Institution. In San Francisco, the mayor chooses the police chief, the chief picks the command staff, and the mayor has the final OK. As a Hall of Justice insider put it, “The chief puts in his two cents, and the mayor puts in his 50 cents.”

The 1970s brought affirmative action, and over the years, there have been numerous other attempts at reform—by the mayor, the Board of Supervisors, the Police Commission, the Office of Citizen's Complaints (OCC), even voters through the ballot initiative process—but these had created a Rube Goldberg-like system of policing and oversight that reflected, more than anything, widespread uncertainty about the role of the police in a city that values public safety but mistrusts the institutions that protect it. Other problems includ-ed tight budgets, technology so outmoded that fax machines were considered cutting-edge, and an us-against-them mindset that dated to the 1960s and '70s and surged after Fajitagate. Ideologically, the SFPD had long been to the right of the rest of San Francisco, but by 2004, it resembled a red island in a sea of liberal blue. Nearly half of the force's 2,100-plus officers no longer even lived in the city, which only increased their alienation from San Francisco and its problems.

The department needed a certain kind of person at the helm. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, a progressive who trained at the Police Academy and worked as an investigator in the District Attorney's Office before being elected in 2004, says the SFPD, like any paramilitary department, “requires a General Patton, in-your-face kind of firmness.” A mordant sense of humor helped, too: “You have to look at being a cop here as a comedy—this gig is like a Fellini film,” Delagnes says. “A chief needs to convey the message: ‘I will be there for you. I won't let anybody push you around. Now go on out there and do your fucking job, understand what being a cop in San Francisco is like, and if you don't want to deal with it, go be a cop somewhere else.'” This meant someone who could hold his or her own, in public and private, against the outsized personalities who occupied San Francisco's political stage. “You need to have a police chief who can get in front of the TV cameras, gain the public's confidence, and raise the department's esprit de corps,” McNamara says. “Quiet and understated doesn't get the job done in this day and age.”

Yet in this administration, Newsom was front and center—on crime issues and everything else. As a surge in black-on-black violence led to a spike in the homicide rate, the new mayor turned up unannounced at murder scenes, his brow furrowed, asking questions and promising to end the senseless killing. He played basketball at a Hunter's Point tournament with the feel-good name “March Gladness” and generally tried to channel the ghost of Robert F. Kennedy. In retrospect, he may regret making the murder rate such a prominent issue; it has come back to haunt him again and again. But at the time, it seemed like the right move, and in the giddy momentum of his gay marriage coup, he seemed like a guy who could do almost anything. Fong, his acting chief, proved herself an able lieutenant, quickly emerging as the front-runner for the top job.

Newsom explained her reformist, by-the-book appeal two years ago, in an interview with San Francisco: “She's very much a new type of chief. She treats people dispassionately, which means fairly. She doesn't play favorites. She doesn't play politics. And, you know, a lot of people like that, a lot of people don't.” The fact that she seemed to hate the spotlight (even as far back as 1979, when the Chronicle sought to interview her for a puff piece on affirmative action, she declined, and seeing careers destroyed by Fajitagate just made her more leery) wasn't necessarily a drawback either. Fong would let her boss shine.

The other obvious pluses were her race—the city is 31 percent Asian—and her sex. Anointing Fong put women at the top of all three of the city's public safety departments: the SFPD, the fire department, and the DA's Office. Bratton himself could not have been a more effective PR symbol of change.

Yet from the moment she was appointed, Fong learned that Newsom wasn't going to be able to do all the talking for her. On April 10, 2004, Isaac Espinoza, a popular young officer who worked out of the Bayview station, was slain by a gang-banger toting an AK-47. The department was shattered by the death of the 29-year-old with a string of commendations, the first cop gunned down in the line of duty in 10 years. The murder occurred just as Newsom was about to name Fong as his permanent chief, and he delayed the announcement by a day. People who saw Fong soon after the killing say she was overwhelmed.

Three days later, the new district attorney, Kamala Harris, announced that she would not seek the death penalty for Espinoza's killer. Her position wasn't a surprise—she ran as an anti-capital punishment candidate. But the cops were infuriated, no one more so than Delagnes, who was with Harris when she dropped her bombshell and felt sandbagged by her ill-timed declaration (Espinoza hadn't yet been laid to rest). After a petition by his angry rank and file, Delagnes went on the attack, strongly denouncing Harris's decision. Fong took a quieter approach, signing a letter that disagreed with Harris but declining to make any harsher public statement. “This is a really tough time for the department,'' the chief said as she dodged reporters. “The department really needs to heal right now. We really need to do our jobs and move forward.'' Himself an opponent of capital punishment, Newsom applauded the measured way Fong dealt with the crisis.

Still, it was Fong who suffered long-term damage within the department—more even than Harris. To beleaguered cops, the Espinoza case seemed symbolic of how little the DA's office and the city valued the risks police take, and Fong's timid response only rubbed salt in the wound—an unfortunate way to introduce herself to a department craving an alpha chief. Yet, to make any headway in reforms, she needed the troops with her. “It was a tactical error on her part,” Sanders says, contrasting Fong's reaction with the way someone like Bratton almost certainly would have responded. “You've got to maintain the loyalty. You're the general. That's what all those stars on your collar are for.”

As the surge in homicides continued, Fong was often at Newsom's side, but she rarely said anything memorable. Increasingly, the department's lead spokesperson role was played by Deputy Chief Morris Tabak, head of the investigations bureau. Before Fong's appointment, he had been a midlevel lieutenant best known as head of the mayor's security detail. His rise was so sudden that when he turned up at the press conference at which Fong announced her new staff, some were surprised to see him there. Many believed that when Tabak spoke—the DA's handling of homicide prosecutions and “revolving door” crime were prime targets—he did so with the mayor's blessing. Still, almost everyone agrees that the perception of Tabak as the department's official defender in the press made Fong seem even weaker.

Meanwhile, Fong was preoccupied with organizational changes, recruitment and training, and improving the department's decades-old infrastructure. She also took seriously her role of reining in the rule-breakers and head-knockers on the force. Her quiet efforts seemed to be working; longstanding critics of the department started to see real change. “For all the craziness, for all the problems, the level of professionalism among the officers is much better than it's ever been in San Francisco,” says Peter Keane, the former police commissioner. “And a lot of that has to do with Heather Fong.” But others were frustrated that so much of her focus seemed to be bureaucratic. “Everything she talks about doing is administrative,” complains the current Police Commission president, Theresa Sparks. “Whereas another chief would talk about all the new policing programs first—‘We got a new gang squad down here.' And then if someone would ask them about administrative or discipline matters, they'd say, ‘Yeah yeah, we did that, too.'”

Fong's next major blunder showed a blind spot for big-picture politics, including in the black community, where the murder crisis was centered. The issue was a long-stalled community-policing plan hammered out between African American leaders, city officials, and the SFPD several years earlier, and then shelved in the aftermath of Fajitagate. Now, with gang violence rising in Bayview and the Western Addition, Newsom wanted that plan dusted off. But Fong, it turned out, had serious objections, especially to a provision that put the program under the command of a black officer named Con Johnson, who had played a major role in shaping the plan but was controversial in the department. Several insiders say the chief told Newsom that if he insisted on implementing the plan, she would quit. Fong didn't oppose community policing per se; her concern was largely organizational. But instead of giving everyone involved a heads-up, she stunned them by backpedaling on the deal at the press conference where the SFPD was supposed to announce the plan. Black leaders in particular were incensed. The plan was effectively dead (though according to the mayor's office, limited community policing did begin in 2006).

Insiders say this was one of the few times Fong stood up to her boss. Publicly, Newsom always supported his chief, but according to insiders, at some point, he started having “buyer's remorse.” Newsom can be a combative boss, sometimes flying into rages when things don't go his way and excoriating associates in phone calls and at meetings of department heads. Fong, on the other hand, is exceedingly courteous and unwilling to challenge people openly or even to say no, instead wearing people down with her frequent statement “I'm working on it”—and she abhors being yelled at. With Newsom, observers say, her natural politeness can seem excessively deferential. Sparks, a transgender woman, is especially attuned to the nuances of gender and power. “If you see the mayor and the chief in a public setting interacting, there's no question she seems…I hate to use the term subservient, but…the chief allows herself to be in his shadow. Whether it's cultural, or hierarchical—he's the leader, revered—I don't know. But I would have to suggest that another chief wouldn't take it from him.” Newsom himself is said to dislike how Fong defers to him and others. “He gets angry with her for not pushing back when pushed,” another insider adds. “That leads to disrespect from him.” Over time, says the source, the mayor has become “cold and remote” toward Fong.

Almost two years into his administration, in fact, Newsom was talking as if it were his department. “I need more African American police officers,” he said in an interview with this magazine. “I need to get [the] crime mapping up and running.” He only mentioned Fong when the interviewer asked whether he thought she had the respect of the rank and file. His less-than-ringing endorsement: “I think she has, I think. Yes, I do.”

Soon after that interview, in late 2005, this mix of his prominence and her almost military allegiance to following orders finally blew up in both their faces. “Videogate” started when popular Bayview captain Rick Bruce (who had been a top candidate to succeed Fagan before he was caught up in a voting scandal) decided to retire. One of the cops under Bruce's command, an officer named Andrew Cohen who made PR videos for the department for years before returning to street patrol, filmed a series of satiric skits that he intended as a comic homage. Like a lot of police humor, the videos—starring a Rainbow Coalition of Bayview cops—were puerile, un-PC, and not all that funny, taking indirect potshots at pretty much every minority group in the city. Cohen planned to play the spoofs to a cops-only audience at the station's Christmas party, but when they weren't shown, he posted them on his website, and all hell broke loose.

When Newsom found out, he gathered leaders of the various groups whose sensibilities might be offended by the videos, showed selected scenes, then paraded them out with Fong for a superheated press conference. According to one African American leader, Newsom was looking for a way to defray anger over the community-policing debacle, and the videos gave him the means. Fong's reaction sounded more passionate than her response to the Espinoza case. “It [is] extremely dark day in the history of the San Francisco Police Department for me as a chief to have to stand here and share with you such egregious, shameful, and despicable acts.” Then she announced the suspension of 24 officers. Those disciplinary actions are being contested, and some officers have sued for discrimination because none of the Asian officers involved were suspended. Recently leaked depositions in that lawsuit show just how conflicted Fong was at the time: “I did not want to go through a press conference,” she said. “The Mayor's Office scheduled the press conference.... I normally would not hold a press conference to discuss a disciplinary matter.”

The remaining shards of her reputation as a chief who stood up for her officers were gone. “Here's Gavin Newsom giving this press conference, calling Videogate the worst thing since Adolf Hitler,” Delagnes recalls. “And the chief's standing next to him, and the cops are going, ‘You gotta be shittin' me.' That damaged her beyond repair. That was the day that her relationship with the cops was over.”

And into the void swept powerful forces from the right and the left who sensed the disarray and began forcing Newsom's hand.

If Steven Bochco were scripting a series about a union boss in a big-city police department, Gary Delagnes is the character he'd invent. Tall and weathered, with the look of a former athlete who long ago gave up the rigors of training (he was a Hall of Fame first baseman for the University of San Francisco), Delagnes has enough swagger and profane wit to carry a TV cop show on his own. “Gary is a good communicator,” Sparks says. “It's unfortunate that the chief is not a better communicator.”

Delagnes hasn't always been so critical of chiefs; years ago, he was suspended for his role in the theft of issues of a gay newspaper that parodied the SFPD's then-top cop, Richard Hongisto. But when the Espinoza case and then Videogate exposed Fong's weaknesses as a defender of the rank and file, it was Delagnes who expressed their outrage. Cops responded by embracing him as their de facto leader. Other city departments have also looked to Delagnes to help further their agendas, including Harris's staff as it sought to repair the damage caused by the Espinoza mistake. “I think that there are certain relationships in city government that have suffered due to Fong's management style,” Delagnes says. “People don't feel that she gets things done. Nor do they believe that she has any great effect as a leader.”

Delagnes' critics (of which he has plenty) say his rise has served only to further destabilize the department. “If you've got a guy like Gary Delagnes pounding away, day in and day out, about how the chief is a bad leader, morale is low, what a great job he did getting them more money, on and on and on, what do you expect?” Sparks asks. Delagnes doesn't disagree. “I shouldn't have this much power,” he declares. “The chief of police should have the power. The chief of police should, at times, tell me to go fuck myself. When you have this sort of leadership vacuum, everybody grabs a piece of the pie.”

A turning point for the Board of Supervisors was the melée at last fall's Halloween party in the Castro, in which an argument between two groups of young people ended in the shooting of nine bystanders. Despite the number of witnesses (300,000 people attended the party), no one was arrested, and Fong's reaction didn't help the SFPD's credibility: she made no appearances and gave no interviews, and when she was criticized for not taking a more visible stance, she defended herself by telling the Chronicle that she had “approved a statement that went out to the media.”

Several supervisors publicly skewered Fong. Meanwhile, Ross Mirkarimi, whose district includes the Western Addition, had been positioning himself as the Board of Supervisors' go-to guy on crime. (President of his class at the Police Academy—Isaac Espinoza was a classmate—and head of the Public Safety Committee, he seems certain to run for mayor as the Progressive/Green candidate when Newsom terms out in four years.) Searching for ways to stem the violence in his own district, Mirkarimi latched on to the notion of increasing foot patrols—basically, cops walking the beat, a fundamental part of community policing. Newsom and Fong said they supported the idea, but became evasive when pressed for guarantees. Finally, after months of lobbying, Mirkarimi introduced his own legislation. Letting the Board of Supes set SFPD policy is never a good idea, especially with a department exhausted by outside meddling. But Newsom agreed to work with the board on the issue, then pulled “a chump move” (Mirkarimi's words) that still makes him livid. Without alerting the board, and clearly under directions from Newsom, Fong announced her own, less binding plan, setting off a furious fight between the supervisors and the mayor. To make a long story short, Newsom lost the battle, Fong lost critical support on the board, and the political repercussions were still being felt five months later, when the Police Commission rejected Newsom's pick and elected Theresa Sparks as president.

Sparks is an only-in-San Francisco candidate to help lead a police department. A twice-divorced Vietnam vet who ran waste management and recycling firms for decades before moving to the Bay Area 12 years ago and transitioning from a man to a woman, she looks like someone's middle-aged aunt and sounds like a tough-guy uncle. She is now CEO of the sex toy business Good Vibrations. And one of her charms is that she can hold her own against Delagnes any day.

Indeed, she's been surprised by the way many have looked to her for leadership. The commission has traditionally had a tense relationship with the rank and file because of its oversight and disciplinary functions. After her election, Sparks paid a visit to Delagnes and “34 of his closest friends” at the POA's spacious offices. When someone criticized her for not attending a memorial for fallen officers in Sacramento, Sparks answered that as a political appointee, she didn't want to go where her presence might be seen as opportunistic. The response floored her. “A hush fell over the room. Then all of a sudden, people started saying, ‘I can't believe you're saying that. You are the leader of this department. You're the president of the commission. The chief reports to the commission. And the commission reports to you.'” One cop “literally had tears in his eyes,” Sparks recalls, telling her, “‘We look to you for direction.'”

Last fall, after the Halloween shootings, Newsom toured Chinatown with the chief and declared a meeting with Asian American leaders, saying, “I am more resolved in my support for her than ever.” Now, suddenly, those words sounded empty. The mayor had lost control of both the cops and the commission. The commission has the power to get rid of the chief. And Sparks and her colleagues weren't going to stand by and watch as the department floundered in its most basic jobs—catching criminals and keeping the streets safe.

Two events this past summer highlighted just how passive the department has become. The first was a string of shootings over three days in the Western Addition, blamed on rival gangs battling for turf around the Friendship Village housing complex. After the second night of gunfire left four bystanders injured, Mirkarimi, who lives just down the street, got on the phone to Fong and asked that her officers maintain “a fixed presence” to prevent more violence. Fong gave her word, but by the next morning, the cops had vanished—and three more people were shot. To date, no one has been arrested for any of the attacks.

Nor have there been any arrests in a string of 11 armed robberies that terrorized the Marina around the same time, culminating in the July shooting of a 65-year-old man by assailants wearing skeleton masks. The crimes, which police believe were probably not all related, were disturbing enough; then news leaked that the police car usually assigned to the area had not been patrolling its sector for some time. Northern Station Captain Kevin Dillon, who was involved in both snafus, blamed a lapse in communication for the failure to follow through on Fong's order to station officers at Friendship Village. As for the Marina, he claimed he couldn't keep patrol cars there because the supervisors' foot patrol legislation forced his officers to walk beats in the Western Addition.

Soon Fong relieved Dillon of his command and kicked him over to a job overseeing nighttime operations out of the Hall of Justice. But the move didn't allay the sense that Fong had not been able to reverse the cops' raging case of “why-botherism.” In Fong's first two years, overall arrests dropped nearly 12 percent from 2003, while overall crime was down 8 percent. Between 1999 and 2005, arrests were down 35 percent. Although the homicide rate did improve last year, an Examiner analysis this past January found that the average number of murders annually has been 38 percent higher under Newsom and Fong than in the eight years under Willie Brown and his three police chiefs. The homicide solve rate, meanwhile, has plummeted from 49 percent under Fred Lau, Brown's longest-serving chief, to 25 percent on Fong's watch. Even a statistic that seems like good news—a 24 percent drop from 2003 to 2006 in the number of grievances filed with the Office for Citizen Complaints, the police watchdog agency—could also be interpreted as cause for alarm. “I'd like to say those numbers mean we're doing a better job,” Delagnes says, “but the truth is it's just an indication of less contact with the public”—i.e., depolicing.

Policy types coined the term a few years ago to describe a phenomenon in which police avoid accusations of racial profiling and stay out of trouble with higher-ups by neglecting less egregious crimes in the inner city. No longer just an inner-city phenomenon, depolicing is now widely understood as the natural by-product of a department that's had the wind knocked out of it by unsupportive superiors and officials, lenient juries and courts, excessive oversight by outside agencies, or fear of getting hurt on the job. Good policing demands effort and initiative. Numerous cops I've spoken with over the last few months agreed that depolicing has become an increasing reality in San Francisco, meaning that cops are reluctant to try to stop or respond aggressively to all but the most heinous crimes—the ones that will get them in trouble if they do nothing.

For patrol and beat cops, one common delaying tactic is “making the block.” An SFPD officer explains how it works: “You're driving with your partner, and you see something that experience tells you isn't right. But instead of checking it out, you circle the block to see what it looks like when you get back. Nine times out of 10, the situation has either been resolved without a crime occurring, or a crime did occur and you can call in backup, or it's already over.” The street cops have done their job, but in a way that minimizes their personal risk, and without trying to stop a crime before it occurs.

The people I talked to are particularly worried about how all this affects younger officers—the department's future. “They feel handcuffed,” says one experienced cop, “like there's no support and they'll get disciplined even if they make an honest mistake, which is common. We need young guys going out there, getting the bad guys—they've got the fire to do it. But you can't be aggressive.”

I first contacted Fong's press office about an interview in April. I wanted to give the chief an opportunity to tout her achievements, answer her critics, maybe even shift some of the blame to Newsom, where many I talked to thought it rightfully belonged. I spent the next five months emailing, faxing, and phoning regularly, yet all I heard was the mantra of “we'll get back to you” for which Fong has become famous in city government. Then, around the time Newsom demanded the resignation letters, things changed. She wanted to talk.

But she started putting me off again, seemingly agreeing to a day, reneging, asking to see my questions. Finally, she consented to speak by phone, not in person. We set a time: 4 p.m. At 6 p.m., there were more questions about my questions. Finally, two and a half hours late, she got on the line.

Fong's intelligence is palpable when you talk to her; but so is her ability to use that intelligence to avoid getting pinned down. I expected that I might have to wade through waves of wonk-speak, and I did. What I didn't expect were the deep feelings that simmer below her surface when it comes to the SFPD. Among her troops, Fong is viewed as an austere and distant manager, her leadership limited to rare public appearances and signing her name to press releases. But talking to her, I realized that she does possess the passion to lead—it's just hard for her to express it. With me, she did try, and when her handling of the Espinoza episode came up, she sounded as if she might cry.

“Sometimes, it's hard to be the chief,” she said. “Because sometimes you're supposed to stand there and be strong, and it's almost that you can't express your emotions. But it doesn't mean that the emotions aren't there. And I think that many people who know me, both inside this department and outside this department, all know that I'm someone who cares very much about our officers. I care about every member of this department. And....”

Then she started to break up, explaining, “I can't go there—it's emotional, because when something happens, we're a family.”

Moved, I wondered if Fong, letting her officers glimpse this side of her, might transform her­self in their eyes. Listening to the tape of our interview the following day, however, something else struck me. Though I went in wanting to know why she made the choices she did in the Espinoza and Videogate cases, her obvious pain had kept me from asking. Like so many people I talked to, I had been deflected by Fong's fragility when what I really wanted was for her to disarm me with her hidden strength.

Much of the rest of our conversation was, as Delagnes describes trying to get an answer out of her, “like eating soup with a fork.” For example, here's what she said when I asked if some of her powers as chief were being stepped on by others: “I think that when you have an organization where people dedicate their lives to the profession, we have certain experiences. When there are people who have not been in our shoes, sometimes it takes time to explain those experiences. But at the same time, I think it is a good way to communicate but to also hear what the concerns are. Because I don't think that anybody in any organization should be wedded to doing things the same way forever and ever and ever. There's nothing wrong in looking at different ways of doing things.”

Somewhere in there is a “yes.” I think.

Fong clearly wanted to talk—in the end, the interview lasted over an hour, more than twice as long as she had agreed to—yet getting her to persuasively explain her goals and frustrations was impossible. As for accomplishments, all I could put my finger on—as Sparks had complained—were administrative changes, like the hiring of civilian specialists for the IT and financial staff so cops can go back to working the streets. Later, her press office sent me a list of additional achievements, like an increase in collaboration with various state and federal agencies and the creation of a gun buyback program. Tabak, who heads the key investigations unit, told me that doubling the size of the gang task force, staffing up the crime lab and nighttime investigative teams, and working closely with the U.S. Attorney are among the measures helping to lower the rate of black-on-black homicide. In writing, the mayor provided yet more specifics about the department's progress in the past three-plus years: it has secured funding for 750 new officers, increased foot patrols, upgraded its antiquated management information system, and convened a task force to address racial profiling.

I started trying to get in to see Newsom months ago. In the end, what I got were last-minute written answers to a few questions and a call from his chief spokesman, Nathan Ballard, finally offering an interview—but too late for my deadline. In writing, Newsom said he had “a strong working relationship” with Fong, frequently meeting and talking with her by phone. When asked if, in retrospect, he's satisfied with his choice of Fong three years ago, he answered: “I am entirely satisfied.” Asked if Fong would still be the chief come January, Ballard said, “We're not going to entertain those kinds of hypotheticals” about Fong or any department heads.

Fong told me she wants to stay on, but even if Newsom keeps her, she will have to transform herself—and her relationship to her troops—in ways that seem impossible for her. When others talk about the kind of leadership the SFPD requires now, it certainly sounds like they're describing the anti-Fong. Sparks says the department needs “a visionary leader who can embrace change, because what we're going to see in the next four years is nothing but change.” And that, she adds, means someone who can stand “nose to nose with the mayor.” Delagnes agrees, pointing out that having a strong chief would be in Newsom's long-term political interests as well: “What does Giuliani spend a lot of his time talking about? ‘I cleaned up New York.'” If Newsom wants to run for statewide or national office, “he can't leave a legacy of homelessness or crimes.”

Of the names being thrown around as possible successors to Fong, none is a true outsider. They include Tabak; San Mateo Police Chief Susan Mannheimer, a much-admired ex-SFPD cop (16 years on the force) with solid experience on the streets; and Captain Paul Chignell, the popular Ingleside station head whose transfer to Taraval by Fong invoked the wrath of the Police Commission in September.

What lies ahead for the SFPD? It depends partly on the findings of the evaluations being conducted by the department. One, which focuses on foot patrols and district boundaries, is almost complete. The other, by the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, a group that specializes in helping progressive police departments improve their operations, was commissioned by the city and will take two years. It's expected to be the most extensive appraisal in the department's history, with the potential to transform all the weird dysfunctions that distinguish the SFPD from other big-city police departments and have invaded everything from recruitment to training, staffing, operations, and how officers relate to the people they police. Some of the largest issues to tackle include how to give the cops the support they need without letting them run roughshod over suspects and citizens, and how to give the chief more cover from the city's gnarly politics and powerful mayor.

Which brings us to Newsom. He has big ideas, but hasn't really proved that he can get big things done. He's taken on crime as his issue, but in retrospect, his first important decision—to hire Fong—looks, to a lot of people, like a mistake. If he really wants to solve the crime issue for the long term, he has to commit to a reform of the department that will rock every important interest group in San Francisco. And to do that, he needs a chief who is as powerful as he is. Is he willing to hire that person?

As for Fong, when I think of her in the role of top cop, I'm reminded of a meeting at the Police Commission I attended months ago. I arrived early, when only Fong and a few others were there. Then a homeless man walked in with a massive head wound, the entire side of his face, from his forehead to his chin, caked with dried blood. The sight made most of us turn away. Not Fong. Her response was unforced and compassionate. She sat close to him and fixed her eyes on his, calmly asking if he'd seen a doctor. Then she told him to call her office, wanting to make sure that he found help.

On the phone, when I noted her reluctance to promote herself and her department, Fong said, “We have a lot of work to do, and I focus on doing the work, not on saying, ‘Look at us, look at us.'” She also admitted this can sometimes put her and her department at a disadvantage. Even so, when you take the time to observe her, one thing about Fong becomes clear—she's a great cop. Now the city needs a great cop who's also a great chief. 

Bennett Cohen is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and the coauthor, with ex-SFPD chief prentice Earl Sanders, of The Zebra Murders: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness, and Civil Rights (Arcade Publishing, 2006).


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