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RAT Entrap 

Police are luring the homeless into crime. Is this time well spent?

Wednesday, Sep 17 2008
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One chilly October evening in the Bayview, Shakka Clyde Jones was standing near a bench when trouble stumbled in his direction. The trouble — a scrawny white guy in tattered clothing and disheveled hair slurring something about a light for his cigarette — seemed extremely drunk. The trouble also happened to have a fresh green likeness of Andrew Jackson peeking out of his breast pocket.

Twenty big ones. There for the taking. Right in Jones' face.

Jones happened to be a guy who could really use that cash. For two years, he had been living in a homeless shelter in San Mateo, collecting disability checks, repaying debts, and traveling by bus to San Francisco to pump gas for tips, which he had just finished doing that day. He hadn't been convicted of a crime in more than a decade, and the plan was to get himself and his wife into public housing in San Francisco. At that point, Jones thought it could happen soon. Maybe even by January 11, his 48th birthday.

What Jones didn't know was that the drunk man with the tempting $20 bill wasn't really drunk, and he didn't really need a light. He was undercover cop Kevin Healy, known as "Scrappy," a decoy who has helped ensnare dozens of would-be pickpockets and thieves as part of a San Francisco Police Department sting operation — the Robbery Abatement Team (RAT). If Jones went for the $20, 10 police officers were standing by to make sure he wouldn't get away with it.

According to an SFPD press release, RAT aims to deter crimes against the homeless in neighborhoods where they are apparently victimized — the Tenderloin, the Mission, the Bayview. But homeless advocates and public defenders say the sting scheme targets the poor and entraps them into committing crimes through an appalling misuse of resources.

Robbery decoy operations aren't new or unique to the city, but this year the quantity and nature of the San Francisco cases has been alarming, says Lea Villegas, the public defender's office policy and communications assistant. RAT has resulted in 29 misdemeanors and 21 felonies just this year, she says. Many of the accused are homeless. Some are drug addicts. Others have no criminal histories.

Don Waltz was arrested in July for taking a decoy's bait outside St. Martin de Porres, a Potrero Hill soup kitchen where he had gone for some turkey barley and advice on paperwork. This infuriated volunteers, who consider the kitchen a safe haven for struggling men like Waltz, who was later convicted of misdemeanor theft. "It's outrageous," said Charlie Engelstein, who runs the kitchen. "This crime would never have taken place if the police hadn't created it."

Another RAT target — an illegal immigrant with no criminal record — was chased by police through the 16th Street BART plaza in the Mission. When he was finally apprehended, the money police said he had stolen was gone. That case was dismissed for lack of evidence, but despite the city's sanctuary status, the man was turned over to ICE for likely deportation, according to his lawyer, Severa Keith.

Equally upsetting to the public defenders are the resources dedicated to an operation they consider pointless and cruel, especially when the SFPD's solve rates for homicide cases lag far behind those of police forces in comparably sized cities. The average number of officers involved in the stings this year, Villegas says, is 11, which includes the decoy, one or two close covers, and debriefing and arrest teams. Then there's all the cops' time that goes into being subpoenaed to testify in preliminary hearings and trials.

Though there's no telling where Scrappy accumulated it, last year he raked in $19,708 in overtime pay. Two other known decoys, Robert Sanchez and Calvin Lew, made $34,544 and $37,080 in 2007 overtime respectively. "These officers are getting paid to go out and criminalize the poor," Villegas says.

Of those against whom the D.A.'s office brings charges, many opt for what's referred to as an "out-today deal" by immediately pleading guilty, according to public defender Kleigh Hathaway. Those who refuse and cannot afford bail must languish in jail for about three months.

Though SFPD spokesman Neville Gittens would not answer SF Weekly's questions about the history or stats of the RAT, it's clearly a departmental source of pride. The late and widely celebrated Officer Bill "Rug Rat" Langlois even published a novel about disguising himself as a helpless elderly man and enduring 256 muggings in the '80s.

Early this month, Lieutenant William Canning proudly informed the Police Commission that the RAT had conducted 25 stings and arrested a total of 109 people since February. The goal of a recent operation in the Tenderloin was to reduce violence directed at homeless people — "crimes that often go unreported," an SFPD press release says.

But if many of the crimes are unreported, public defenders wonder, how does the SFPD know when and where a sting is warranted?

Jeff Snipes, the chair of criminal justice studies at San Francisco State University, has a possible answer: They don't. And police don't really care, he says, because RAT stings have far less to do with keeping the homeless safe than they do with improving the stats of an ailing police department. When cops create the crime, they can solve it right away. "It's an easy way to bump up robbery clearance rates," he says. In 2007, of 2,276 reported strong-arm robberies, the SFPD cleared just 414, or about 18 percent.

Snipes says he has heard about robbery decoy operations in Las Vegas and all over California, particularly in Los Angeles. In New York City in 2006, hundreds were arrested in Operation Lucky Bag, where police abandoned purses in the subway and waited for a thief.

In California, robbery stings like those set up by the RAT are tough to defend against because the bar for proving entrapment is high. Essentially, defense attorneys must show that police conduct would compel a normally law-abiding person to break the law. Most people wouldn't steal $20 from a drunken man's pocket — unless, say, they needed the money very badly, as many homeless people do.

As the RAT officers tell it, out in the Bayview that day, Shakka Clyde Jones lit Scrappy's cigarette with his right hand and reached into the decoy's breast pocket and nabbed the $20 with his left. Jones says he never touched the money. Regardless, after receiving the light for his cigarette, Scrappy gave the secret prearranged signal and the arrest team surrounded Jones and cuffed him.

Though Jones says the police emptied his pockets and tossed his cell phone, his disability ID, and his bus tickets on the ground, the cops didn't find the cash on him. According to the police report, a sergeant had seen Jones wedge the $20 bill into a crack in the sidewalk near him, where an officer later retrieved it.

Because he refused to plead guilty and was too poor to make his $15,000 bail, Jones spent 102 days in jail, missing Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and even his birthday. He fell behind on his debt repayment, he says, setting him back about a year in securing public housing.

When Jones finally got his day in court, his lawyer, Carmen Aguirre, gave it her best. In her closing arguments, she analogized that if "a vault in the Pacific Exchange were opened up with no cameras, do you think everyone would be honest and just walk by?" For the vulnerable populations RAT targets, she said, "$20 or $40 is the equivalent of robbing a bank." The jury convicted Jones, but the judge knocked the felony charge down to a misdemeanor and sentenced him to 18 months' probation. To this day, Jones denies he took the $20.

As for why the officers approached him in the first place, one police report states the following: "I advised the officers via radio that there was a black male standing near a bench."

About The Author

Ashley Harrell

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