City's first black police chief writes about '70s racial killings
Prentice Earl Sanders was one of two black homicide inspectors in an internally fractured department.
By KIM CURTIS
SAN FRANCISCO -- Terror gripped the streets of San Francisco in late 1973 and early 1974.
Black men affiliated with the Nation of Islam were shooting whites, at random and out in the open. In less than six months, 15 people were killed and seven were injured, including a future mayor of San Francisco.
At the time, Prentice Earl Sanders was one of two black homicide inspectors in a department already fractured internally over race. Suddenly, because of the so-called "Zebra murders," police officials found themselves needing black officers they didn't have.
"The same thing that sparked the killing was getting in the way of solving it," Sanders writes in his recently published memoir, "The Zebra Murders: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness, and Civil Rights."
Symbol of social instability
In a distinguished, nearly 40-year career, Sanders later became the city's first black police chief. But he chose to write his first book about this episode in his career because the havoc the killers unleashed on the city seemed to symbolize the social instability of the time.
Watergate, the Hearst kidnapping, the Weathermen and similar calls for armed rebellion left many grasping for security -- something police were supposed to provide. Even within the San Francisco Police Department, a group of black officers had sued alleging racial discrimination, adding to the tumult.
Sanders, 69, was born in 1937 in Nacogdoches, Texas. His mother moved the family to Los Angeles when he was 10. After she died, he went to live with an uncle in San Francisco. He went to college, joined the U.S. Army Reserves and considered a career in the military. But after attending Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga., he changed his mind.
His brother-in-law wanted to become a police officer, so Sanders helped him study. Then he took the test himself and scored third out of 800 applicants.
That was in 1964, and Sanders was one of a handful of black police officers in the predominantly Irish-American department. He says they faced daily prejudices, including fewer promotions and less desirable assignments.
When the Zebra shootings began in October 1973, they appeared to be random, targeting regular people going about their regular business.
"It wasn't just whites who were frozen by fear," writes Sanders' co-author, Bennett Cohen, who acts as narrator and quotes Sanders throughout the book. "Nonwhites felt it, too, especially blacks, who worried that revenge attacks by whites might come next, causing the terror to spiral even further out of control."
A profile of the shooters began to emerge. All were black men who used .32-caliber handguns and appeared to be connected to the Nation of Islam. Beyond that, the clues were few.
The attacks became known as the Zebra killings not because of the racial element, but for the Z channel on police radios -- "Z for Zebra" -- dedicated to the manhunt.
City leaders got so desperate to stanch the bloodshed that, for a time, cops were told to stop and search every black man they met on the streets at night. Because men would likely be stopped more than once, officers handed out so-called "Zebra cards," identification for men to show they had already been cleared.
Investigators finally got a break when Anthony Harris, a 28-year-old accomplice to the killers, became an informant.
On May 1, 1974, more than 100 officers descended on the suspects at their homes in separate raids, and the killings stopped.
A year later, three men went on trial for multiple counts of murder, conspiracy and assault. A fourth man already had confessed to one of the killings. All four men, who have maintained their innocence in the string of shootings, remain in prison serving life sentences.
Sanders continued to rise through the ranks and became chief in 2002. A year later, though, he took early retirement after suffering a heart attack brought on by the stress of "fajitagate." Off-duty police officers, including the son of his assistant chief, got involved in a street fight over a bag of take-out food. Sanders and his top brass were indicted and later cleared of conspiracy charges.
"I had dedicated my life to the principles of justice in the department, in my city and I saw that wiped away," he says, blaming the scandal on politics.
The Zebra killings taught Sanders that it's better to change the system from within.
"I learned reform is better than revolution," he says. "They wanted to start a race war. ... They wanted revolution, but revolution would only get a bunch of people killed."
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