-- A judge today dismissed charges that top police department officials were involved in a conspiracy to cover up an embarrassing fight involving off-duty officers -- in a major slap at the city's district attorney, who had likened the events to the Watergate scandal.

The dismissal of charges, for insufficient evidence, against five officers -- including two deputy chiefs -- followed District Attorney Terence Hallinan's own dropping of charges against Police Chief Earl Sanders and Assistant Chief Alex Fagan Sr. on March 12.

The seven had been indicted by a grand jury, which also indicted the three off-duty patrol officers involved in a brawl over a bag of steak fajitas. The charges remain against the three officers, who include Fagan's son, Alex Fagan Jr.

Superior Court Judge Ksenia Tsenin dropped the charges against the five remaining top police officials, saying, "Since the district attorney's office will not do it, this court must."

For there to have been a conspiracy, Tsenin said, there had to be an agreement to commit it.

"Where was the agreement?" she asked prosecutors. "Where was the nod? Where was the wink?"

She also criticized Hallinan's office, saying it let the grand jury "drift in a sea of evidence."

Mayor Willie Brown, an opponent of the district attorney and the man who appointed Sanders as the city's first black police chief, said: "This is a good day for the officers, and a good day for the San Francisco Police Department. But this is not a day for rejoicing. This whole episode has been terrible for the department and the city."

He also strongly criticized Hallinan, saying: "It's clear that the 35-day ordeal he put these seven officers through -- along with a highly respected department and a deeply concerned city -- could have been avoided if he'd simply faced up to his duty as a responsible prosecutor.

"Instead, he chose to put us all through this circus, for his own purposes. I echo the concerns of Judge Tsenin, who said she was 'troubled' by the 'ethics of the district attorney.' "

A grand jury in late February charged Sanders and the six others with conspiracy to cover up a police department probe of the fight between three off-duty officers and two men outside a local bar.

Ishmael Tarikh, director of Bay Area Police Watch, an independent watchdog group, expressed disappointment in the dismissal of charges.

"It is truly a disappointment because it seems as if there is a continuing cover-up," Tarikh said. "It says they are protecting the top and letting the bottom feeders swing in the breeze. That does not bode well for police accountability in San Francisco."

A spokesman for Hallinan, who has had strained relations with Sanders, said the district attorney is reviewing his options.

"It's a knockdown, but we are still in the middle rounds of this bout," said Mark MacNamara. "We are continuing with the battery charges against the three officers and we have other options, and we are looking at those now."

Outside the courtroom, some of the police commanders fumed about being indicted.

"I was angry because I shouldn't have been there in the first place. My family shouldn't have had to be there," Capt. Greg Corrales said.

San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan's case against police officials has unraveled.