SAN FRANCISCO — Indicted by a grand jury and warned by the district attorney that "no one in San Francisco is above the law," six of the city's top police commanders have stepped aside, leaving the department in shambles.
Police Chief Earl Sanders was preparing to take a medical leave, and appointed an acting assistant chief Monday.
The moves were the latest development in a police corruption scandal that erupted last week with the indictments of Sanders and the six other commanders for allegedly obstructing justice by hindering a police investigation into an off-duty brawl involving three officers — including a troubled rookie whose father is Sanders' top aide.
The officers, who allegedly demanded two men hand over a doggie bag of steak fajitas Nov. 20, have been accused of felony assault and battery and were suspended without pay Monday, a spokesman said. All were to be arraigned Tuesday.
A contentious Police Commission meeting Monday illustrated how the scandal had rocked the city — both on and off the force. Rank-and-file officers lined up to praise their accused leaders, while some citizens pleaded for reforms for what they perceive as a pattern of police corruption.
"This is a cautionary tale for police departments all over the country," said Jimani Jakada of the group Bay Area Police Watch, who criticized the police for closing ranks around the indicted chief. "They're saying they're blue, I'm blue, I'll stand with you."
Officers representing various segments of the force — black, Hispanic, Asian, and gay and lesbian officers — urged the commission to keep the command staff intact.
"This department is up and running and we'll continue to serve the people," said Chris Cunnie, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association. "We stand by these people."
The mayor, who has steadfastly supported Sanders and the police investigation into the off-duty fight and the alleged cover-up, pulled back from the controversy Monday and did not offer public comment.
But the mayor's rival, District Attorney Terence Hallinan said he was stunned.
"I understand the public feelings of shock, outrage, anger and apprehension," Hallinan said.
After the Police Commission meeting, its president Connie Perry announced Sanders had accepted the offers of the six commanders to "step aside and go on leave." Then commissioners adjourned, saying they needed to gather more information about the indictments.
More details were expected to be released at the arraignments Tuesday.
It wasn't clear Monday if or when Sanders might relinquish control of the department. Assistant Chief Alex Fagan and Deputy Chief David Robinson were also among those stepping down.
Heather Fong, one of the few untainted police managers, was elevated to be acting assistant chief, effectively running the department.
The turmoil began with a sidewalk confrontation between Fagan's son, Alex Fagan Jr., a 23-year-old rookie, and two other officers who had been drinking at a police banquet to celebrate the mayor's promotion of the elder Fagan to the department's No. 2 spot.
At closing time, Fagan Jr. and officer Matthew Tonsing allegedly accosted Adam Snyder, 22, who tends bar nearby, and his friend, Jade Santoro, 25, as officer David Lee, the designated driver, pulled up in his pickup truck.
Snyder, who said he had no idea the men punching them were police, called 911 on his cell phone.
Police arrived and took the officers away before Snyder and Santoro could identify them. Fagan Jr., Tonsing and Lee also were allegedly allowed to change their clothes and drink lots of water before they were tested for alcohol, more than four hours later.
It turned out Fagan Jr. had at least 16 violent encounters with suspects in a 13-month period, sending six of them to the hospital, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
But other higher-ups apparently took little action other than to counsel him about his conduct and order anger management training — a course he never took.
On the Net: S.F. police: www.ci.sf.ca.us/police
Bay Area Police Watch: www.ellabakercenter.org/pages/police.html