Demoted SF police officer tries again to clear his name

Inspector Frank Lee has been a San Francisco police officer since 1987.

The San Francisco native calls himself a dedicated public servant.

But earlier this month, he stood before an unlikely body: The City's Sunshine Ordinance Taskforce, which acts as a watchdog for open government.

It was Lee's latest effort to clear his name after a series of events starting more than six years ago that resulted in his demotion and failed vindication.

Lee claims he was harassed out of the homicide squad by superiors who didn't like him and went after him for filing a harassment claim. Lee, who has faced off against a police officer union head, said his other “transgressions” included the arrest of former mayor and police Chief Frank Jordan's the son for a DUI.

Neither the Police Department — citing personnel privacy rules — nor the San Francisco Police Officers Association would comment for this story.

While Lee remains in the department — he's an inspector at Central Station — his highest ambition was making it to the homicide squad.

But his dream of working homicides, which began in 2009, was short lived.

That was the year he filed a discrimination complaint with the Department of Human Resources, which he says led to misconduct charges against him.

The incident that sparked his discipline, and which Lee says was linked to his discrimination, was the shooting death of Norris Bennett in 2009.

Alex Welsh, a San Francisco State University photojournalism student at the time and a good friend of Bennett's, had been taking photos for a documentary of life in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood when he witnessed Bennett's death and took photos of the scene. Bennett was gunned down by gang members while playing dice with friends near the Oakdale housing projects.

As lead investigator in the case, Lee thought the best way to deal with Welsh, a primary witness, was to convince him to hand over evidence and make a statement instead of using more forceful approaches. Lee felt that would turn the witness against police while his approach would induce Welsh to cooperate.

His superiors thought differently. They wanted him to use the search warrant that had been granted and force the recalcitrant Welsh, who had left The City in fear after the shooting, to hand over evidence in a murder case.

Lee, who eventually served the warrant and found little of use, was at first reluctant to do so because of California's shield law that protects journalists from handing over their work to police.

This approach, according to Lee's Police Commission file, was what angered his superiors — and allegedly led to his harassment. Then-police chief and current District Attorney George Gascón wanted him fired and charged him with misconduct in 2010. Those charges included disobeying an order by not serving the warrant fast enough, allegedly lying about verbally ordering another officer to write a police report and falsifying overtime by allegedly listing two hours of overtime for five minutes of work, among other charges. Lee said the overtime related to a call he received while off duty and that he followed normal procedure, which allotts two hours of overtime for any off-duty officer in such cases.

Lee wasn't fired, but was soon transferred after the Police Commission upheld the overtime charges and the charge of disobeying orders by failing to promptly serve the search warrant.

Lee had himself filed a discrimination claim but it was dismissed for lack of evidence — a ruling he appealed with the civil service commission, which upheld the earlier ruling.

All of this has lead Lee to the Sunshine Taskforce, where he had a hearing July 2.

Lee claimed he had a right to have his civil service commission held in the open. The commission disagreed since it involved active and retired officers who have a legal right to privacy beyond what is usually granted to others.

“I'm not going to hide like most cops,” he told the task force about his desire for an open hearing for further vindication. “I wasn't guilty of any of those charges.”

In a strange turn of events, the naming of names became a central part of the hearing.

The main reason, and the only relief he feels he has, is that Lee wanted that hearing in public to name his alleged harassers. Their names had already surfaced during the Police Commission hearing against Lee, as had his version of events. But he wanted their names made public again, along with the hearing's transcripts.

“The only thing I ask is that the hearing transcript and everything be released so any member of the public who wants to look at it can,” he told the task force.

That hasn't happened. Neither Lee nor the commission uttered the names.

In Lee's case, that was because he'd been warned by the San Francisco Police Officer Association President Martin Halloran, who sat in the audience at the hearing, from disclosing the officer's names.

As for the task force, they had been warned by the City Attorney's Office.

In the end, the task force's ruling on the matter was continued.

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