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The Chief Is In (for Now) 

With homicide cases going unsolved and morale in the police department sinking, Heather Fong's days as chief may be numbered.

Wednesday, Aug 6 2008

About three dozen people are gathered at the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center for a meeting of the San Francisco Police Commission, and the questions they're hurling at Police Chief Heather Fong follow a familiar pattern. To put it in a nutshell, the prevailing sentiment is that there is too much crime and not enough cops.

The ever-polite, soft-spoken Fong listens intently before giving lengthy answers about the city's crime problem not unlike others she has offered during her four years as chief. She arrived 45 minutes late, looking gaunt and tired, having rushed from a news conference at the Hall of Justice where she announced the arrest of a suspect in a triple slaying — a man and his two sons gunned down in broad daylight in the Excelsior District a couple of days earlier.

A woman in the audience asks when her neighborhood can expect to see more police on the street. That elicits a serpentine, wonky recitation from the chief about police academy cutbacks, officer retention rates, and budget constraints. "That's the long answer," Fong concludes, leaving Police Commission president Theresa Sparks to coax the short version from her: "We will continue to do the best job we can, but we may not be able to have as many officers in the stations."

It wasn't what anyone wanted to hear. But then few things seem as they should be these days when it comes to the SFPD, which is burdened by a personnel shortage and a $338 million city budget deficit that has crimped ambitions to add more street cops even as a wave of retirements looms among a generation of officers in their 50s.

And those may be some of Fong's more solvable problems.

Both rank-and-file cops and veteran administrators who point to her detached, low-key management style describe the police department as adrift, and complain that morale has plummeted to a post-Fajitagate low.

Indeed, there have been rumblings for months that the chief — the first Asian-American woman to head a big city police force, and whose relationship with Mayor Gavin Newsom, who appointed her, is said to be strained — may be on her way out.

When Newsom demanded routine letters of resignation last year from citywide appointees in the expectation of an administration spring-cleaning, more than a few City Hall observers expected Fong to be among the first casualties. Cops have perpetually grumbled that she isn't a strong leader, some former members of her command staff were widely suspected of plotting against her, and the Board of Supervisors has become emboldened to meddle in previously sacrosanct police policy, including, most recently, pushing for more foot patrols.

And then there's the department's image problem as incompetent crime-solvers. SFPD already had one of the lowest homicide solve-rates — barely one in four — of any big city police department in the country when Fong became chief. That has scarcely improved on her watch. Meanwhile, the murder rate in San Francisco is stuck near a 15-year plateau. As this article went to press, the 64 homicides in the city thus far this year were on pace to eclipse last year's official count of 98.

With the help of the Police Commission, which may have saved Fong by throwing its support behind her last year amid rumors that the mayor was about to dump her, the chief appears to have successfully dodged a bullet.

Her backers, including heavy hitters in the city's Asian-American community, where she is enormously popular, insist that she'll be okay, and dismiss the discontent from within the department as the last gasps of the SFPD's old guard. "Unfortunately, there's a lot of resentment of Heather for who she is, without regard for what she's accomplished. She'll be fine," says longtime friend Henry Der, who headed the advocacy group Chinese for Affirmative Action when Fong joined the force in the 1970s.

But others aren't so sure. "Her standing at City Hall is virtually zero," says Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin, who professes to like Fong personally. "She's a very good person, she means well, and she works her ass off, but it's not working, and I don't think many people would argue otherwise."

Considering the SFPD's lingering crime-solving problems and Fong's unpopularity among rank-and-file cops, longtime observers express surprise that the mayor hasn't opted for a new chief. "It's like watching your pitcher serve up one home run ball after another and not seeing the manager come out of the dugout," says one veteran cop, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Anticipation for a change of chief heightened last September, in advance of Newsom's second term, after his en masse request for resignation letters. (After holding off until only a few hours before the deadline imposed by Newsom, Fong dutifully complied.) Having everyone lay their letters on the table was considered a way for the mayor to tidy up his administration by accepting the resignations of a few key officials with whom he was unhappy. Speculation at City Hall was that Fong was at the top of his would-be hit list.

Among those who considered that rumor to be true was the chief, say several people close to her. "She conducted herself in an exemplary fashion under the most stressful of circumstances," says Police Commissioner Yvonne Lee, a huge Fong supporter. "I know that it wasn't easy for her.

Fong got the news that Newsom might be preparing to sack her via a text message from an aide while in China as part of an official city delegation, those familiar with the matter say. In typical fashion, she showed little emotion when confronted by reporters at a police awards ceremony the day after her return. She gave a brief statement that she served at the pleasure of the mayor and that it would be his decision for her to remain.

But if Newsom was intent on pulling the plug, he was met with unaccustomed resistance. Shortly after Fong's return from the China trip, the seven-member Police Commission (four of whose members, including Lee, are mayoral appointees) privately came to her rescue, drafting a statement of support. Lee, a former Bill Clinton appointee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and a prominent player in the city's Asian-American community, helped lead the charge. The vote, during a closed-door session permissible to discuss personnel matters, was six to zero, with then-Commissioner Joe Veronese, a Newsom appointee, absent.

About The Author

Ron Russell


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