No adult supervision

Posted: Mar 07, 2003 12:00 AM

As former San Francisco Police Chief Tony Ribera put it Tuesday, the big advantage of a comprehensive investigation is that it "not only gets the guilty, but it clears the innocent."

A follow-up to that idea is that a shoddy investigation spares the guilty and damns the innocent to eternal suspicion. In the Special City, a shoddy initial investigation seems to have led to a slew of indictments against 10 S.F. cops, including Police Chief Earl Sanders.

The worst of it is, the indictments of S.F.'s top brass were completely avoidable. They wouldn't have happened if someone in charge had tried to avoid what the public now perceived: the distinct appearance of a cover-up.

Go back to November, when three off-duty cops were involved in an after- hours brawl with two civilians. The department should have treated the three suspects by the book -- and added special care to make sure that there was no taint of preferential treatment.

Reports of the investigation say that never happened: Key evidence wasn't seized at the scene. The three cops -- Alex Fagan Jr. (son of the assistant police chief), David Lee and Matthew Tonsing -- weren't tested for alcohol until hours after the incident. The two civilians were not allowed to make an on-scene identification of the suspects.

When news of the poor initial investigation leaked out, Chief Sanders or Mayor Willie Brown should have pledged to get the bottom of the story. Instead, they circled the wagons.

In November, Da Mayor dismissed the apparent assault as "mutual combat," and said if all parties admitted as much, there would be no crime to investigate. (The mayor's spokesman, P.J. Johnston, said that much-cited quote was taken out of context. Besides, Brown did try to get state Attorney General Bill Lockyer to take over the probe.)

Worse, Sanders compared criticism of the investigation to criticism of Jesus. He said all investigations are criticized, then added, "We are going into one of our major holiday seasons, to celebrate the birth of a leader of the religious world. And I do recall in my readings that he was criticized."


Later Sanders made the mistake of transferring Lt. Joe Dutto -- who led the investigation of the Fajita Three non-investigation -- back to the vice squad.

A word about Dutto. He's a cop's cop. Before the indictments, Ribera told me that, while Dutto was no ace at getting along with his superiors, he was one of the most able investigators in the department.

Another word about Dutto: Sanders has maintained the transfer to vice happened after the Fajita Three probe was finished.

A word about the indictments: They were shoddy too, and not only because parts were handwritten.

Indeed, Sanders and other SFPD biggies may well be vindicated because the grand jury considered Dutto's transfer, the spreading of "misinformation" by police to the press and the department's refusal to hand over documents to constitute felony obstruction of justice. The grand jury charged Sanders for one act alone -- the transfer of Dutto. If that's the crux of the case, it's a stretch.

Which puts the spotlight on District Attorney Terence Hallinan, who should avoid the spotlight -- not that he does what he should do.

Hallinan is a liability here because he brings personal ill will to the prosecutor's table.

Then again, in the Special City, everything is personal. There's animosity between Hallinan and Brown over Hallinan's flirtation with Brown rival Tom Ammiano. Sanders is a Brown crony. Fagan Jr. is the son of top police brass. As The Chronicle's Matier and Ross reported, Sanders' attorneys claimed that Hallinan met with Sanders in December to suggest the Fajita Three "simply admit to a street fight" so that the matter could be disposed of in the same manner that Lockyer handled Hallinan's son's assault case -- for a different brawl.

Sheesh. San Francisco criminal justice circles are incestuous as Russia's last royal family. Everyone thinks the city is so sophisticated, but it's as inbred as Appalachia. Well, the stereotype of Appalachia.

It's time for some new blood in this town.