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S.F. prosecutor abandons charges against top officers

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Critics of the city's police department say they hope chances of reforming the force won't sink with prosecutors' decision to abandon criminal charges against the chief and another top officer over a street fight last year.

District Attorney Terence Hallinan dropped felony obstruction of justice charges Tuesday against Chief Earl Sanders and his top aide, saying he believed the two were guilty but couldn't prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

Hallinan will still prosecute other top officers in an alleged conspiracy to thwart a department probe into the Nov. 20 fight. But advocates of police reform worried the exoneration of Sanders and Assistant Chief Alex Fagan Sr. would diminish interest in reform.

Critics say San Francisco police have a tradition of ignoring citizen complaints and hewing to a code of silence.

Hallinan will pursue grand jury indictments against five other commanders and the three officers who allegedly attacked two men on the street for their bag of steak fajitas. One of those charged with assault is Alex Fagan Jr., the assistant chief's son.

All 10 officers pleaded innocent last week. Before he went on paid medical leave, Sanders suspended the other indicted officers without pay.

As the cases against the remaining eight men wind through court, city political leaders will likely seize the election-year bully pulpit to advocate reform.

Former Mayor Art Agnos suggested that a panel of outside experts propose top-to-bottom reforms so the next mayor has a roadmap for action.

"When a police officer goes into the department as a new recruit, they need to see a career track that takes them to promotional opportunities devoid of politics, devoid of family connections," said Agnos. "And all too often, that has been an unspoken connection in the San Francisco Police Department."

Tom Ammiano, president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors and a likely candidate for mayor in November, said Tuesday he thought reform might be the scandal's enduring legacy.

"I think if anything good comes out of this for the cops as well as the citizens of San Francisco is that we really do need to look at more permanent reform," Ammiano said.

Mayor Willie Brown, who appointed his close friend Sanders last year but cannot run for re-election, did not immediately offer any concrete proposals. A spokesman said to expect reform — but not immediately.

"It is difficult to see clearly from the center of the storm," Brown spokesman P.J. Johnston said. "Everybody ought to allow this current crisis to reach some sort of conclusion before locking San Francisco into any major changes."

The Office of Citizen Complaints, a civilian-staffed group, investigates grievances against police. Its annual reports show significant evidence of misconduct in 1,156 allegations against officers between 1995 and 2001. Only two officers involved in the cases were fired; 20 more received lengthy suspensions.

Meanwhile, San Francisco ranked last among major U.S. cities when it came to solving violent crime, according to an investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle published last spring. The police department solved just 28 percent of violent crimes between 1996 and 2000, compared to a national average of 61 percent.

During the same period, San Francisco police solved just half of all homicides, fewer than one-third of reported rapes and didn't investigate nearly 7 in 10 robberies and assaults.