The San Francisco Police Department has finally proved that it is capable of policing itself in a timely fashion. No, I'm not referring to this week's order by Police Chief Anthony Ribera that 12 SFPD officers face a Police Commission disciplinary hearing for having allegedly lied to the Office of Citizen Complaints and internal investigators. I'm talking about the lightning speed with which the SFPD ethics bloodhounds responded to last week's SF Weekly cover story by George Cothran about the "Crime Unit to Stop Homicide" (CRUSH).
The Weekly had been on the stands for mere hours on Nov. 22 when the department launched an internal investigation into the crime fighters in CRUSH, five officers and one inspector who joined together six months ago to investigate the 33 unsolved black-on-black homicides in the forgotten southeast quadrant of the city.
SF Weekly's portrayal of CRUSH captured the raw, and very routine, face of police work: the conversion of drug addicts and other criminals into informants. It's enough to make the civil libertarian in all of us flinch, as Cothran notes in the passage where he questions whether two CRUSH officers have the requisite reasonable suspicion to make a detainment. And there's the scene when Officer Michael Bolte attempts to arrest a dangerous (and presumably armed) murder suspect by subterfuge in a Tenderloin hotel. Unfortunately for Bolte, he knocked on the wrong door, and the man who answered tried to push the door shut on him after he identified himself as a police officer. Bolte forced his way into the room and promptly set the suspect down on his butt. When the cops realized they had the wrong room, they beat a retreat.
No one is likely to confuse CRUSH's tactics with those of a Care-Bear, but remember that the unit is in the business of taking down the stone-coldest killers in the city and attempting to resurrect the rule of law in neighborhoods where the benign neglect of cops, politicians, and bureaucrats has allowed the druglords to kill with impunity. Such police work rarely makes a pretty picture, but it speaks well of the SFPD that it agreed to let our writer shadow the unit for three weeks and report the war on crime from the front lines.
But instead of counting their laurels, the department brass have decided that the salty talk and aggressive police work described in the article warrants an official probe by SFPD internal affairs. Deputy Chief Fred Lau, who ordered the probe, says that SF Weekly readers called the Police Department on the day of publication complaining that scenes in the article approached the sort of misconduct typified by Mark Fuhrman, the LAPD thug who perjured himself in the O.J. trial. Specifically, Lau mentions an incident in which Bolte gained entrance to that Tenderloin hotel room by imitating the Indian accent of the hotel manager: "Manager," Bolte said knocking on the door. "Hello, manager."
The comparison of Fuhrman to Bolte indicates that we have exited the realm of rational discourse and entered political territory. The moral distance separating these two cops must be measured in light-years. Fuhrman boasted of the joy of beating faces to mush and planting incriminating evidence. He lied on the witness stand. Bolte put himself in harm's way -- as he does every day -- to bring justice to the streets.
The impending CRUSH investigation tells us less about the SFPD response to rogue cops or public perception than it does about Police Department politics. The department has never been in any hurry to take action in misconduct cases. The SFPD didn't move like this in the Dolores Huerta beating. Or the ADL spy scandal. Or the New Year's Eve raid on a SOMA AIDS fund-raiser. Or the in-custody death of robbery suspect Aaron Williams.
Is the SFPD's newfound vigilance a sign of reform or is it connected to departmental and electoral politics? Chief Ribera's disciplinary moves against the AIDS benefit/Williams 12 come just a scant 16 days before the runoff election between Willie Brown and Ribera's patron, Frank Jordan. It's well-known that the Supreme Court follows the elections, but who has ever heard of a police chief putting in the fix in a mayoral election?
Lt. Earl Saunders, one of the two black inspectors who founded CRUSH, attributes the CRUSH probe to brass envy.
"The people who are behind this investigation, they don't like the fact that we had to jam 'em to the wall to get them to do the unit," Saunders told Cothran this week. "It wasn't their idea."
CRUSH was created only after Saunders and his former homicide unit partner, Napoleon Hendrix, wrote a year's worth of memos to higher-ups, getting no response. Saunders called into question the department's racial bias, and then the unit was created -- mostly to appease him and Hendrix. Now, says Saunders, SFPD leadership is looking for a rationale to disband CRUSH.
The worst part of this episode is that the six officers being called on the carpet -- Bob McMillan, Paul Lozada, Michael Bolte, E.R. Balinton, Michael Philpott, and Maurice Edwards -- have risked their lives to do the hardest cop work there is: take the law to the meanest streets, where police are the enemy, and earn the trust and respect of people. What thanks do they get for reversing a long history of neglect in black San Francisco neighborhoods? A disciplinary investigation.