More than a decade ago, three San Francisco police officers got into a drunken brawl on Union Street over a bag of fajitas in a highly publicized scandal that came to be known as “Fajitagate.”
One of the officers, David Lee, was brought back into the ranks in 2013 — by then-Chief Greg Suhr — and is now training officers at the Police Academy how to use body-worn cameras.
Amid national tensions between police and the communities they serve, as well as the San Francisco Police Department’s own controversies — most recently, the reassignment of an officer who fatally shot a civilian to a bureau focused on reducing such incidents — police reform advocates are questioning Lee’s return to the force.
Former Judge LaDoris Cordell, one of three panelists who led the Blue Ribbon Panel’s recent investigation into police bias, said Lee’s rehiring is another example of why the public has lost trust in the department.
“That this is just coming out is something that I find a bit shocking,” Cordell said Monday night at a Commonwealth Club event at Glide Memorial Church. “I do have a very serious concern that this officer has been in effect rehired by the department.”
Cordell added, “He has no business being back in the force.”
On the night of Nov. 20, 2002, officer-in-training Alex Fagan Jr. and two fellow officers emerged from a party on Union Street, according to reports at the time. The three had been drinking and when they ran into two men who’d just emerged from a restaurant — one carrying a bag of fajitas — a fight broke out over the food. The handling of the incident’s investigation and media coverage put the three men at the center of a giant scandal.
The brawl and subsequent investigation led to charges against the three officers, including Lee, and the indictments of seven high-ranking officers, including then-Police Chief Earl Sanders and Suhr, for allegedly covering up the incident.
The brass was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, and the criminal charges against the three officers in the fight never stuck.
Lee, who was a probationary officer in training during the 2002 brawl, did not complete his probation because of the fight. The other two officers — including Fagan Jr., son of the then-Assistant Chief Alex Fagan — were also let go by the department.
Lee tried to get rehired in 2007, under then-Chief Heather Fong, but was denied. But under Suhr’s tenure, Lee was brought back to the force in 2013.
Though it’s been nearly three years, some still find Lee’s rehiring troublesome.
District Attorney George Gascon, also a former police chief in San Francisco, disagreed with the decision to bring Lee back.
“It’s very concerning,” Gascon said. “I don’t know the facts behind it, but it’s certainly concerning that you have people that have a problematic history of discipline that are now being [used] as an example of what the right things to do are.”
For his part, Lee doesn’t see his rehiring as a concern.
When asked if he thought there was an issue with him teaching officers to use body cameras, Lee said, “I wouldn’t think so.”
First rehire attempt
In an ABC 7 story by Vic Lee in 2010 about the scandal, David Lee said he still wanted to work in the force.
“I’m known as, ‘Hey, you’re the guy from Fajitagate,’” David Lee told ABC 7 at the time, adding that he was exonerated of criminal charges.
Lee, who was fired along with Fagan Jr. because neither completed their probationary period, said he’d reapplied to join the force in 2007.
“I passed the written test, the physical agility test, [and] the psychological evaluation,” Lee told ABC 7 at the time. “The hiring board unanimously said, ‘Let’s roll with him.’”
But Fong’s administration passed him over.
“I was found not guilty,” Lee said to ABC 7. “I thought that meant something here, and apparently it doesn’t.”
Rehired in 2013
It wasn’t until Lee reapplied under Suhr that he was allowed back onto the force.
San Francisco police Sgt. Michael Andraychak would not comment on Lee’s disciplinary history, but said the department has no issue with Lee working as a police officer.
“Officer Lee was acquitted by both civil and criminal juries in San Francisco over a decade ago,” Andraychak said in a statement. “He reapplied to the department and, after completing the hiring and background processes, was rehired. He successfully recompleted the police academy in 2013.”
Andraychak added, “Since his return to the department, Officer Lee has continued to serve The City honorably. Currently, he is part of a team that works to ensure the successful implementation of the department’s Body Worn Camera program.”
Lee is currently on modified duty, while he recovers from a January injury, according to the department. Lee reportedly hurt himself after tackling an armed suspect who had shot at his girlfriend and others.
The department says it has no plans to alter Lee’s current duty.