A late-night argument over steak fajitas could in the end topple what was once considered one of the most progressive police departments in the United States.
In a move experts call unprecedented, a San Francisco grand jury last week indicted the city's police chief, his assistant chief, and others, claiming that they conspired to cover up a brawl involving three off-duty officers.
The plot and its cast of characters could be taken straight from the pages of pulp fiction: an officer with a history of violence, his father's rise to the No. 2 job in the department, and a hippie-turned-district attorney whose family's clashes with the cops date back to the 1940s.
Yet this is far more than a San Francisco story. Even as scandals and public pressure have created a momentum for reform nationwide, this investigation sends a message that even the highest law-enforcement officials can be held accountable.
"This will effect change because [senior officials] will see that the community, through grand juries, can reach out and touch them," says Ron Martinelli, a southern California consultant on police reform. "They cannot hide behind the pedestal of rank anymore."
No one imagined that San Francisco's top cops would have to. From the first, the news of a November scuffle, allegedly between three off-duty officers and two civilians over a bag of takeout food - while disquieting - was hardly unheard of. The most intriguing aspect, it seemed, was the fact that one of the cops was the son of the new assistant police chief.
But when the grand jury announced its wide-ranging indictments, a drama of Faulknerian complexity began to unravel.
On one side, leading the grand jury, is district attorney Terence Hallinan, an oft-arrested civil-rights activist of the 1960s who later supported the legalization of marijuana and prostitution as a county supervisor. A half-century earlier, his father, also an attorney, was imprisoned for defending accused Communists, and he once promised a special investigation of San Francisco police for using excessive force during a riot.
On the other side, one of the three officers implicated in the fight is Alex Fagan Jr. - the golden boy with a tarnished record. During the past 13 months, the assistant police chief's son had been cited for 16 incidents of violent behavior, six times sending people to the hospital, The San Francisco Chronicle reports. He underwent counseling three times.
"That's just utterly intolerable," says Samuel Walker, a professor at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, who studies police reform. "I don't think he would have survived at many police departments without his father as the No. 2 guy."
And that fact, say Dr. Walker and others, is in itself a sign of progress. While recent police scandals in Oakland, Los Angeles, Houston, and Miami point to the darker side of the badge, most experts say the trends in police departments are, if anything, positive.
Beginning during the civil-rights movement, then accelerating through the past decade, reform has started to reshape law-enforcement across the US. Indeed, after 40 years of experimentation, police departments are finally finding out which reforms work best.
"During the past several years, they have coalesced," says Walker.
For older, more entrenched departments the change has often been slow and not without setbacks - such as the police beatings of Rodney King and Abner Louima in Los Angeles and New York, respectively. But departments are learning from these mistakes, experts suggest. Especially in the West, cities have undertaken dramatic reforms, from setting up citizen oversight boards to creating independent investigators.
"There's an increasing sense that you can't solve these cases of police abuse without breaking down the 'blue wall of silence,' " says Paul Chevigny, a professor at New York University School of Law. What's going on in San Francisco, he adds, "is a part of that."
To some, that is a surprise. San Francisco was, after all, one of the first cities with a citizen's oversight board, giving it a reputation as a national leader. But the indictments suggest that jurors felt the "blue wall of silence" is still strong here.
While Mr. Fagan Jr. and his two colleagues are set to eventually stand trial for assault, the indictments of Alex Fagan Sr., Police Chief Earl Sanders, and five other officials are on charges of obstruction of justice.
Indeed, Dr. Martinelli suggests that despite its progressive West Coast image, San Francisco is more akin to the East Coast cities that grew up during the rough-and-tumble 1800s. Once a candidate to head the Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC), he says he withdrew after seeing city politics up close.
"There's so much politics in San Francisco it is almost stifling," he says.
Yet these things can go in cycles, others say. As head of the OCC a decade ago, Eileen Luna-Firebaugh says she had a good relationship with city officials. But today, she wonders why the OCC has hardly been mentioned. In fact, it was District Attorney Hallinan's disgust with the original police investigation that led him to empanel the grand jury.
Says Ms. Luna-Firebaugh: "No matter what program you have in place, if you don't have the political will to hold police accountable, they won't be held accountable."