The Arc of Earl

Prentice Earl Sanders, first black police chief of San Francisco, died last month. Appointed by Mayor Willie Brown, his term failed to rise to its historical promise

…most people associate with Earl Sanders’ brief and generally un-noteworthy 14-month tenure as the city’s top cop is the Fajitagate scandal. He and most of his command staff were indicted for — and later absolved of — covering up a police probe of a 2002 street brawl, allegedly over a bag of fajitas, involving three young off-duty cops. Obstruction of justice charges were later dropped and Sanders obtained a rare factual finding of innocence from a Superior Court judge. Fajitagate wasn’t his only problem at the time. The year after the scandal broke, a U.S. District Court judge released two African-Americans that Sanders and an old partner in homicide allegedly framed for murder. By the time he retired in September 2003, after six months of medical leave, his reputation was in tatters. He’d been trashed in the local press. Detractors openly mocked the leave as a sympathy ploy despite his having suffered a minor stroke. Even his one-time patron, and the man who appointed him, former Mayor Willie Brown, asked him to quit.

One of the drunken cops, who beat and robbed a pair of citizens for their fajita order, was the son of the mayor’s newly appointed assistant chief of police.

The case may have been botched by District Attorney Terrence Hallinan when he used it as a pretext to go scorched earth on the cops. From a New Yorker interview with Jeffrey Toobin:

When the cases started to fall apart, Hallinan tried to portray the case as that of a runaway grand jury. But he seems to have been pretty enthusiastic about the case until the court pointed out that there was precious little evidence. In one of the more bizarre scenes I’ve ever recounted, Hallinan gave the grand jurors a partially blank indictment and let them fill in the names of the people they thought should be charged. So the grand jury added the chief of police, Earl Sanders, and six other high-ranking cops. With at least a wink and a nod, Hallinan seems to have supported the grand jury’s action. But Hallinan’s case against the higher-ups quickly fell apart, and he seems to have failed rather dramatically to make the case that there were many rogue cops in the department.

Notably someone like Toobin was still allowed to be objective and reasonable regarding the police in this 2007 interview, in a way we may never see allowed again:

Is this a department that has traditionally had problems with brutality, or with corruption, or with nepotism? In other words, was this systemic?

Almost certainly not. The S.F.P.D. is known as a rather laid-back police department, not surprisingly, given the history of San Francisco. It does not have a history of brutality, like the Los Angeles Police Department, or a history of corruption, like the New York Police Department. There was a small, rogue tradition in the S.F.P.D., which apparently coincided with the popularity of the Dirty Harry movies. (Movie buffs will recall that Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan was a San Francisco detective.) One reason everyone was so shocked by this story is that there is not much history of corruption or brutality within the S.F.P.D.

The allegation was that Alex Fagan, Sr., the assistant chief of the department, and his colleagues at the top were trying to protect his son, Alex, Jr., who was one of the three assailants at the bar. The District Attorney tried to make the case that there was cronyism and nepotism in the department, and I think it’s safe to say that he failed rather completely in this effort.

Hallinan the District Attorney in the case, who passed away in 2020, was a fist-fighting radical who also served on the city council, losing his first election to Harvey Milk in 1977 and his last, for DA, to Kamala Harris in 2004.

Harris herself felt the years-after reverberations of one of Sanders’ more serious scandals in her campaign for president.

Notoriously, one of her final acts as San Francisco DA was to send the case of Caramad Conley, now 50, back to trial after he had been cleared of the 1989 double murder of Charles Hughes and Roshawn Johnson…

When Harris finally left to take up her position as California’s Attorney General, her successor’s first act was to release Conley from jail.

Conley’s was one of two murder convictions later overturned because of misconduct by then-detective Earl Sanders and his partner; their other 298 murder convictions I’m sure were entirely on the level. Chief Sanders got out of Dodge with the third biggest pension in the state upon retiring in 2003. The city settled two of his wrongful conviction lawsuits and lumbered on under a federal consent decree for a discrimination lawsuit in which Sanders was instrumental (see below). The Conley Case made the list of purported prosecutorial excess that helped sink Harris’ presidential run:

A judge vacated Conley’s conviction in December 2010 after “voluminous” evidence that the witness had lied was presented. At the time, Harris was San Fran’s district attorney and her office sought to retry the case.

A month after she left to become state attorney general, Harris’ former office dropped its effort and he later received $3.5 million in settlement money from the city for being wrongly convicted.

Sanders resurfaced in San Francisco in 2007 promoting a memoir (link added):

The Zebra Murders, co-written with TV and film scriptwriter Bennett Cohen, purports to set the record straight about the investigation into a series of racially motivated serial killings in 1973 and 1974 that are among the most horrific — and least talked about — crimes in San Francisco history. But even his friends acknowledge that the book is also an attempt by the city’s first and only African-American police chief to set his own record straight.

Sanders, it turns out, had been assigned to the Zebra Murders detail briefly, doing nothing of significance. The book pads that with Sanders’ history as an activist cop and his association with a landmark ruling establishing affirmative action for the city’s police, and boilerplate about racism’s ultimate responsibility for it all. The cover blurb was shameless:

On October 20, 1973, in San Francisco, a white couple strolling down Telegraph Hill was set upon and butchered by four young black men. Thus began a reign of terror that lasted six months and left fifteen whites dead and the entire city in a state of panic. The perpetrators wanted nothing less than a race war.

With pressure on the San Francisco Police Department mounting daily, young homicide detectives Prentice Earl Sanders and his colleague Rotea Gilford—both African-American—were as- signed to the cases. The problem was: Sanders and Gilford were in the midst of a trail-blazing suit against the SFPD for racial discrimination, which in those days was rampant. The backlash was immediate. The force needed Sanders’s and Gilford’s knowledge of the black community to help stem the brutal murders, but the SFPD made it known that in a tight situation, no white back- up would be forthcoming. In those impossible conditions—the oppressive white power structure on one hand, the violent black radicals on the other—Sanders and Gilford knew they were sitting ducks. Against all odds, they set out to find those guilty of the Zebra Murders and bring them to justice. This is their incredible story.

Sanders was roused to right historical wrongs by an aspiring screenwriter.

Sanders’ involvement with the book came about as the result of an unsolicited phone call from Cohen in 2002 while he was assistant chief of police. As a Los Angeles scriptwriter and occasional producer, Cohen was looking for a true-crime story to pitch as a feature film. He contacted Sanders on a hunch after recalling the Zebra killings, which had occurred when Cohen was a young UC Berkeley drama student.

Cohen says that almost everything he had read about the murders suggested that there were no black detectives involved in solving the cases, something he thought to be odd considering the black-on-white nature of the crimes. An Internet search turned up the names of Sanders and Gilford.

The call was music to Sanders’ ears.

That music goes ca ching.

“I always wanted to set the record straight and put the entire period of racial unrest in a context that’s been missing whenever the subject of the murders gets brought up,” says the former police chief.

But Sanders wasn’t a writer. Then, just as it seemed he would never get his chance to “set the record straight,” he got the call from Cohen out of the blue. In Cohen, who had set out looking for an African-American protagonist for a movie project, Sanders found the perfect writing partner. In Sanders, Cohen discovered a legendary black cop with a great back story.

And someone who, as police chief of San Francisco, had access to the Zebra Murders case files. Sanders entered office having already contracted with Cohen and he set to work, on the book.

After being appointed chief in July 2002, Sanders had eight boxes of materials related to the Zebra killings removed from police archives and brought to his office in the Hall of Justice. The boxes constituted an untapped treasure. They contained material the cops had assembled about the murders but that the district attorney’s office did not require in prosecuting the three Zebra killers it brought to trial, including material related to several suspects who were never charged for lack of evidence.

But Sanders says he and Cohen never got to examine most of the boxes.

During his hectic first months as chief there wasn’t time, he says. In November 2002, as he and Cohen were preparing to dig into the boxes, the Fajitagate scandal erupted. Upon his retirement in September 2003 (at which point, due to the medical leave, he hadn’t been to the office in six months) the SFPD packed up Sanders’ personal effects and shipped them to his home in Folsom.

Cohen the drama school student managed to sell rights to the script to Mandate Pictures (soon after bought by Lionsgate). The Zebra project was listed as “announced” on IMDB in 2007 shortly after the book’s release. Dreamworks was mentioned vaguely; Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B was said to be interested; Jaime Foxx, fresh off of Django Unchained, was suggested for the lead.

None of this means the film was anywhere near being made; IMDB explains terms:

Announced: Films in early development based on confirmed details released by the studio and/or production company. There’s a reasonable expectation more information about the talent and crew will be known in the future. However, many in the industry believe about one out of every 30 projects announced gets made.

Mandate listed it for a time as “untitled Matthew Carnahan Crime Project”; Carnahan’s a screenwriter whose more successful brother Joe makes tough guy films like Narc, Smokin’ Aces and The Grey.

Carnahan described it as a “great, little story” that got “lost in the miasma” of the sixties:

“The two cops that were instrumental in catching these six guys were African American themselves, in the middle of being as infuriated and frustrated and pissed off for all the same reasons and all the same causes these guys from the Nation of Islam were.”

I read about this all at the time almost welcoming the film’s unlikely escape from development limbo, and now I wonder if it, lurking out there in a Lovecraftian fashion, may be released by the current spirit of Racial Reconciliation.

B movie director William Girdler produced a film so loosely based on the murders it was alternately named “Combat Cops” and “Panic City”, casting the killer as a white man in blackface hunted by a black hero; the poster quotes him appraising a murder scene: “black men don’t kill like this”.

As a young police recruit Sanders did well on his entrance exams and rose quickly through the ranks despite, more likely because of, his early political activism. He and his first partner both became Willie Brown cronies, though Brown soured on Sanders before the wheels came off during his tenure.

Willie Brown was plaintiff’s attorney in the case that would make Earl Sanders’ career. Sanders, who would eventually work as a professional witness in criminal cases played that role in the landmark discrimination lawsuit brought in 1973 against the city by a group of black cops calling themselves Officers for Justice. San Francisco’s police union joined the city’s defense against OFP’s suit.

At the time of the Zebra killings the leader of the OFP was Nation of Islam member and cop Jesse Byrd. During the investigation Byrd led efforts against the frank program of racial profiling the city attempted and had to abandon under legal challenge–stopping all black males fitting a description and even handing out cards clearing them once they’ve checked out. Humorously, it was a thoroughly “racist” ploy by the cops that eventually broke the case; one of the lead detectives had a police artist sketch an average-looking black guy and then released it as a wanted suspect. One of the suspects thought it looked like him and panicked, turned himself in and identified the “Death Angel” serial killers operating out of Nation of Islam Temple 26.

During the investigation Jesse Byrd even approached one of the lead detectives and tried to get the location of that snitch–something Sanders brushed off in his weird book as innocuous. In Clark Howard’s Zebra, the only genuine history of the murders, he describes that as well as a scene where detectives hustled their suspect out the back of a motel as NOI members closed in. Nobody seems to have bothered Byrd about it.

Sanders’ no doubt coached role testifying to the department’s “racism” problem, almost fifty years ago, will be recognized instantly as the language and technique still being deployed today, spinning tales of racist flyers and jokes, ethnic-themed costume debauches and the necessity therefore to turn things inside out.

Despite this being the role that launched his career, Earl failed hilariously and miserably. No one outside the trial seemed to notice at the time, and the settlement came quickly despite it all, as if the trial were a formality. History, too, intervened.

The lawsuit was filed in April 1973, barely six months before the Zebra killings started. It began as a slam dunk for OFJ, with U.S. District Judge Robert Peckham issuing a preliminary order setting hiring quotas for minorities and ordering the Civil Service Commission to redress problems with its testing for police department hiring and promotion. (An unrelated lawsuit, affecting the San Francisco Fire Department, had just concluded with similar results.0


As an articulate, experienced trial witness in police matters who had put himself through Golden Gate University to earn a master’s degree in public administration while serving as a homicide detective, Sanders was carefully chosen by Gnaizda to be the lead witness when the OFJ case, after years of pretrial wrangling, finally got its day in court.

As things turned out, he was OFJ’s only witness.

In testifying for parts of three days, Sanders told a compelling story of personal mistreatment while describing an atmosphere of epidemic racial intolerance among SFPD’s mostly white officers. The OFJ legal team had brought in a bulletin board from the homicide bureau where Sanders worked. It contained photos and drawings posted by officers portraying African-Americans and other minorities in unflattering ways. One such item, depicting Sanders, bore the caption, “Purse Snatch Detail.”

Cross-examined by then-Deputy City Attorney Ken Harrington, Sanders was asked if he had ever engaged in ethnic teasing while in the bureau. “No, sir. I don’t take part in that sort of thing,” he said. Pressed, Sanders responded, “No, sir. It is my policy not to engage in ethnic jokes, ethnic ribbing, with mixed [racial] company, because it has been my experience in the police department and throughout life that if you engage in those kinds of things, you leave yourself open to other people.” At the suggestion that such teasing was part of ordinary police camaraderie, Sanders shot back, “It is not part of the camaraderie that I participated in.” [page]

But there was a bombshell.

After Sanders’ first day on the stand, a patrolman phoned Harrington to say he had some items the deputy city attorney might be interested in. They were photos of racially provocative skits presented at an off-hours police soiree in the early ’70s. The bash had been put together by a group of cops who called themselves the Second Platoon, to commemorate their participation in helping to quell the 1968 student riots at San Francisco State University.

Among the photos was one of Sanders dressed in drag, as a black woman wearing a blond wig and playing the role of the wife in an interracial marriage. In another skit he was done up as an African witch doctor, holding a spear with a skeleton on the end, and with a tiger skin slung over his shoulder.

Whatever usefulness his earlier testimony may have served appeared to evaporate. Back on the witness stand, Sanders acknowledged that, as a member of the event’s entertainment committee, he had helped create the skits relying on racial and ethnic humor of the kind he had earlier criticized under oath. Court records reveal that other skits depicted an African-American male employed by the “Black Hand Janitorial Service,” and a lazy Latino male sitting under a cactus drinking tequila. In another, a Japanese-American cop provided an unflattering imitation of former SFSU President (and later, U.S. senator) S.I. Hayakawa.

“Sanders was absolutely destroyed” as a witness, says Harrington, now in private practice. He and Philip Ward, another deputy city attorney involved in the case, insist that the judge (who is now deceased) expressed as much in chambers after Sanders’ testimony and before placing the trial on an already planned recess. (It’s a recollection that Gnaizda does not share.) As best people can remember, Sanders’ courtroom meltdown didn’t attract a lot of media attention, perhaps because of something else that happened. The day he took the stand, the Jonestown massacre, the murder-suicide in the Guyana jungle that claimed the lives of hundreds of devotees from San Francisco’s Peoples Temple, dominated headlines.

During the break in the trial, newly resigned Supervisor Dan White slipped into City Hall and shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, leaving the city in further turmoil. In early December, Peckham halted the proceedings. Citing the need for the city to heal its divisions, he urged the sides to settle the lawsuit. The result, months later, was the consent decree.

If Earl Sanders does get his movie, it should be a dark comedy.

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