Council will still honor SFPD chief, despite indictment

A Jewish group holding a dinner to honor embattled San Francisco Police Chief Prentice Earl Sanders has decided to move ahead as planned, despite the chief's indictment Monday on obstruction of justice charges.

Members of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal said they're fully aware of the awkwardness of the situation, but it doesn't affect the past support and "good work" Sanders has given to the council.

"Nothing has happened that changes the reasons we're honoring him. Because of his foresight and actions, we believe that Jews in Russia are a little bit safer now," said Greg Smith, the council's board secretary.

Sanders is being honored for approval and support of the council's 3-year-old Climate of Trust program, in which San Francisco police and government officials visit their counterparts in the former Soviet Union — and vice-versa — in an attempt to counter hate crimes against Jews, Muslims and other ethnic minorities.

"I think it's fair to say that without his ongoing support, the program would not have been successful," said Smith.

Sanders and six high-ranking police officials were indicted for their alleged roles in obstructing an investigation into a well-publicized Nov. 20 street brawl involving three off-duty San Francisco police officers. Citing stress and high blood pressure, Sanders, 65, is currently on tax-free paid medical leave. The other six have been suspended without pay.

Bay Area Council board members are unsure if Sanders will attend the April 3 Celebration of Freedom dinner, at which he is to be presented the Harold Light Memorial Award.

"I don't know if anybody has spoken to him or his office. I know we will," said Sheldon Wolfe, a past council president and current board member.

"I have no idea what his health is, what his mental state is. Unless he pulls out or doesn't want to be honored, our plan is to go forward."

If Sanders were to decline the award, Wolfe hoped a deputy would accept it on his behalf.

Smith said he doesn't think the council will know if Sanders plans to accept his award until next week at the earliest.

"Obviously, things are in a chaotic state right now. Things have changed dramatically," he said. But "one of the points we try to make with our Russian friends when we go there or they come here is that in our system, a person is innocent until proven guilty."

Sanders could not be reached for comment. Pnina Levermore, executive director of the Bay Area Council, is currently in the former Soviet Union and could not be contacted.

Council members are hoping an event honoring the controversial police chief doesn't drive away attendees or generate bad publicity.

"I hope this doesn't become a cause célèbre, but if it does, we'll just say that this guy has done a hell of a job for a program we consider very important," said Wolfe.

"I had a couple of calls about it this morning, but when I explained, they said, 'Sure, we understand.' Our regular band of supporters and contributors will say that guy helped us, and we want to acknowledge it. If he's done something wrong that's unfortunate, but that doesn't' diminish what he did. Our people are going to come no matter what."

Wolfe expects about 100 people will attend the dinner, though on Tuesday the council's program director, Lori Rosenthal, canceled an ad for the event that would have run in next week's Bulletin.

Rosenthal said the ad, which would have featured a photo of Sanders, was pulled because she decided it wouldn't have attracted people to the event.

"It's mostly an acknowledgement that we think the people who are going to come are past donors because, frankly, that's who's come to our Celebration of Freedom [dinners] in the past," she said.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.