By Erin Sherbert
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Since the days of the Barbary Coast, people have come to San Francisco to reinvent themselves. A once-wealthy real estate speculator became mad Emperor Norton. A youngster shining shoes in Texas became Hizzoner Willie Brown. And, I've discovered, a former sergeant with the notoriously corrupt Oakland Housing Authority Police Department has become head of the San Francisco Park Patrol.
In February 2009, I wrote about how Chief Ranger Marcus Santiago had transformed the park patrol from five part-time docents into a security force of 20 officers, supervisors, and support staff charged with guarding city parks and recreational facilities. It became an overtime cash machine after he enforced a 2004 rule requiring holders of park event permits to pay rangers to staff their events. During the past two years, he has managed to more than double his own pay with overtime, adding an extra $151,652 to his regular salary.
But what I didn't know then was that Santiago has a troubling past, one he may not have been fully forthright about when he applied for the chief ranger position in 2003.
From 1985 to 1993, Santiago was an officer and supervisor with the scandal-plagued Oakland Housing Authority Police Department. Documents, interviews, and news reports show that during his time there, officers routinely beat up and stole from suspects, planted drugs on them, and lied about it in police reports and at trial. The security force was so notoriously corrupt that it became the target of local and federal investigations. Four officers went to prison. Steven Gore, the onetime Alameda County Public Defender's Office investigator whose sleuthing helped bring the corruption to light, believed there was sufficient evidence to prosecute many more. "The idea that just four of these guys went to prison and Santiago continued as a sergeant was absurd," he said.
A 1991 60 Minutes segment characterized the 20-person force as riddled with corruption. "They would go cruising in these cars, do an illegal search, and plant drugs on somebody, and use that as a basis to cite them and search them," said Gore, who was heavily featured in the segment.
Santiago did not return calls seeking his version of events, and a San Francisco Recreation and Park spokesman said Santiago was forbidden to speak with me about the matter. Instead, the department provided a statement saying the patrol chief "is one of the most dedicated, hard-working, and upstanding persons on staff, and we continually rely on his experience."
Indeed, ever since the scandal broke more than 20 years ago, Santiago has characterized himself as a whistleblower. He testified against his fellow officers before a criminal grand jury. He spoke about the scandal at Oakland public hearings. He even rode around in a 60 Minutes van to help producers seek footage of bad OHAP cops in action. He told his Rec and Park superiors that he helped investigate early allegations against OHAP officers.
My interviews and review of the record convince me Santiago was not among the worst criminal offenders in Oakland's public housing security force. One officer who was sentenced to four years in prison for crimes while on the force said Santiago even complained to Chief William Smith about abuses by a rival, Sergeant Daniel Broussard.
But the record suggests Santiago might better fit the definition of a cop who flipped, rather than a true whistleblower. He apparently didn't complain until search warrants and then subpoenas began flying.
"I have no evidence that Santiago ever complained to anyone outside the department," Gore said, "certainly not the DA's office, nor the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, nor the FBI nor the OPD. In any case, Santiago and his group were making the same bogus drug cases."
Gore later became a private gumshoe. He gathered facts to support a series of federal civil rights lawsuits against the Housing Authority that named Santiago among the defendants. The lawsuit complaints allege that "officers, with the encouragement of supervisors, regularly beat, robbed, and harassed persons within and outside their jurisdictions. OHAP officers repeatedly made false arrests, unreasonable searches, and seizures." The cases were consolidated into a class action suit, which victims' attorney Daniel Horowitz recalls Oakland settled for $3 million.
Notwithstanding, on the résumé he submitted to Rec and Park, Santiago characterized his time with the Oakland Housing Authority police as a qualification. He stated that he "handled 95 percent of all internal affairs complaints from 1989 to 1993."
OHAP certainly needed an aggressive internal affairs officer. But the record suggests Santiago was not that man. According to a 1989 OPD affidavit for a search warrant served on Housing Authority premises, Santiago purportedly handled complaints by giving them to Smith, who placed them in his desk. According to an OHAP informant, officer Lee Parker, "no disciplinary action has occurred because no investigation of the complaints was ever initiated."
Santiago also stated on his résumé that he "implemented and assisted in a training program for all personnel, [and] implemented [a] training program for all new recruits."
That, too, would seem to disqualify him, rather than qualify him, for further law enforcement work.
One of Horowitz' 1990 lawsuits, filed on behalf of alleged police abuse victim Darryl Combs, named Santiago and four other officers as defendants. It stated: "The OHA security force consists of persons who are psychological rejects, culls from other departments, rogues, and violent criminals. The OHA and Chief William Smith are not only negligent in the hiring of these individuals, but such hiring was done on purpose to secure thugs."
On his résumé, Santiago further boasts he "supervised and implemented the narcotics buy-bust program for street-level narcotics dealers in the housing projects."
What he didn't mention was that investigators discovered these busts were rife with corruption. Typically, an officer would testify that he had seen drugs fall from the hands of suspects, thus linking narcotics found on the ground to a defendant. This does sometimes happen: According to a 1990 East Bay Express story, 3 percent of the OPD drug task force arrests involved so-called dropsy cases during the 1980s. However, the story found, an OPD investigator analyzing a month's worth of OHAP drug arrests found an unbelievable 75 percent consisted of such cases. "They would go cruising in these cars, do an illegal search, and plant it on somebody," Gore confirmed.
Ex-OHAP officer Jeff Garden described drug busts to 60 Minutes: "We brutalized people. We stole their money. We planted drugs on them to take them off the streets," he said.
Santiago's San Francisco job application contains another unusual contradiction in the form of a 1995 letter from the Oakland Housing Authority stating that he resigned from the agency in November 1993.
However, a July 1993 Oakland Tribune article suggests he didn't resign, but rather was fired. The article, headlined "Housing Authority officer fired for using excessive force," said that Santiago was the subject of an internal affairs investigation into allegations he had misappropriated evidence and that he had been too rough with suspects. Santiago was given time to hire a lawyer and prepare a defense. In the end, the Tribune reported, the Oakland Housing Authority commission voted to uphold the firing. In response to a public records request, an Oakland Police Department official said that records from Santiago's case had been destroyed in keeping with the city's document retention policy. Carel Duplessis, chief of police services with OHAP, had not responded to a request for information by press time.
As a park ranger, Santiago isn't authorized to make drug arrests anymore. But his position nonetheless requires honesty and integrity. He oversees a security force that, like the similar-sized Oakland Housing Authority Police Department, is supposed to treat residents respectfully and lawfully. And he's responsible for divvying among himself and other officers overtime assignments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"It's a matter of honesty," Gore said. "The fact he did the stuff at the Housing Authority ... to the extent that it's a character issue, you don't want people with that character having any kind of authority."