Public safety adrift - Page 6

At this pivotal moment for law enforcement, will Newsom and his top deputies continue to let politics guide policy?
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Illustration by Jason Crosby

And that set the scene for Newsom to change his position on Sanctuary City.

PUSHED OR JUMPED?

When Fong, the city's first female chief and one of the first Asian American women to lead a major metropolitan police force nationwide, announced her retirement in December, Police Commission President Theresa Sparks noted that she had brought "a sense of integrity to the department." Fellow commissioner David Onek described her as "a model public servant" and residents praised her outreach to the local Asian community.

Fong was appointed in 2004 in the aftermath of Fajitagate, a legal and political scandal that began in 2002 with a street fight involving three off-duty SFPD cops and two local residents, and ended several years later with one chief taking a leave of absense, another resigning, and Fong struggling to lead the department. "It's bad news to have poor managerial skills leading any department. But when everyone in that department is waiting for you to fail, then you are in real trouble," an SFPD source said.

Gary Delagnes, executive director of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, hasn't been afraid to criticize Fong publicly, or Newsom for standing by her as morale suffered. "Chief Fong has her own style, a very introverted, quiet, docile method of leadership. And it simply hasn't worked for the members of the department. A high percentage [of officers] believe change should have been made a long time ago."

But Newsom refused to consider replacing Fong, even as the stand began to sour his relationship with the SFPOA, which has enthusiastically supported Newsom and the mayor's candidates for other city offices.

"The day the music died," as Delagnes explains it, was in the wake of the SFPD's December 2005 Videogate scandal. Fong drew heavy fire when she supported the mayor in his conflict with officer Andrew Cohen and 21 other officers who made a videotape for a police Christmas party. Newsom angrily deemed the tape racist, sexist, and homophobic at a press conference where Fong called the incident SFPD's "darkest day."

"Heather let the mayor make her look like a fool. Who is running this department? And aren't the department's darkest days when cops die?" Delagnes said, sitting in SFPOA's Sixth Street office, where photographs and plaques commemorate officers who have died in service.

Delagnes supports the proposal to give the new chief a five-year contract, which was part of a package of police reforms recommended by a recent report that Newsom commissioned but hasn't acted on. "You don't want to feel you are working at the whim of every politician and police commission," Delagnes said. But he doubts a charter amendment is doable this time around, given that the Newsom doesn't support the idea and Fong has said she wants to retire at the end of April.

"I'd like to see a transition to a new chief on May 1," Delagnes said. "And so far, there's been no shortage of applications. Whoever that person is, whether from inside or outside [of SFPD], must be able to lead us out of the abysmally low state of morale the department is in."

Delagnes claims that police chiefs have little to do with homicide rates, and that San Francisco is way below the average compared to other cities. "But when that rate goes from 80 to 100, everyone goes crazy and blames it on the cops. None of us want to see people killed, but homicides are a reality of any big city. So what can you do to reduce them? Stop them from happening."

But critics of SFPD note that few homicide cases result in arrests, and there is a perception that officers are lazy. That view was bolstered by the case of Hugues de la Plaza, a French national who was living in San Francisco when he was stabbed to death in 2007.