SFPD’s Ferguson Problem

Matthew Davies

The San Francisco Police Department worked hard to arrest Cassie Roberts.

San Francisco cops along with Drug Enforcement Administration agents staked out Roberts and several dozen other Tenderloin denizens for weeks, recording and observing video of them from rooftops and parked cars. After a hand-to-hand-drug sale between Roberts and a confidential informant wearing a hidden body camera was caught on camera, a U.S. attorney went to a grand jury with Roberts' name. An indictment was issued, an arrest warrant was signed by a federal judge, and later, Roberts was apprehended and charged in federal court.

Roberts is one of the 37 people SFPD arrested from August 2013 to February 2015 in a sting called “Operation Safe Schools.” Lenient local and state sentencing guidelines such as Prop. 47 do not apply to federal busts; thanks to federal mandatory minimums, fewer than 1.4 grams of crack cocaine earned Roberts and 12 others about one year in federal prison.

Every one of the people arrested during that sting is black. Almost half are women. In Roberts' case, cops passed on busting another drug dealer — an Asian woman — so they could nab Roberts. The confidential informant rejected drugs from “the Asian chick” to get “the good shit” from Roberts, according to court filings.

On its face, this looks bad. As a quick walk down Turk Street shows, selling small quantities of drugs in the Tenderloin is an equal opportunity pursuit. (Just to be safe, the defense called an expert witness who testified that, yes, people of all races sell heroin, Oxycontin, crack, and other drugs in the Tenderloin.)

For the SFPD, the timing couldn't be worse. Chief Greg Suhr is in the middle of firing or disciplining 10 veteran officers, including a captain and a sergeant who exchanged racist text messages with a former cop recently convicted on federal corruption charges. The content of the messages included: “All niggers must fucking hang;” “White power!;” “U may have to kill the half-breed kids too;” and “Ask my 6 year old what he thinks about Obama.” That on top of the all-black arrests paints a troubling picture of San Francisco cops.

At a press conference last week regarding recent law-enforcement scandals — the text messages and the two drug lab technicians who may have jeopardized cases with faulty DNA evidence — Suhr struck a defiant tone.

A day after telling a Board of Supervisors committee that bias is a natural thing — “I have bias, everybody has bias,” he said — Suhr defended Operation Safe Schools as a worthy exercise that will keep children safe.

“The one common denominator” was not race, but “selling narcotics in and around schools,” he said.

One cop will be investigated for his conduct during the stings, Suhr said, but not for racial profiling when making arrests: The unidentified officer uttered “Fucking BMs” — short for “black males” — while conducting surveillance. “Ssh, we're rolling,” the cop's partner admonished.

Not everyone arrested by the SFPD is African-American. Blacks comprise less than 6 percent of San Francisco's population, yet about 56 percent of the people arrested in the city are black, according to Public Defender Jeff Adachi. That includes well over half of the people arrested last year for felony drug charges.

According to Rev. Amos Brown, the minister who heads the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, San Francisco police have a racial problem that is on par with Ferguson, Missouri's. This — the text messages, the all-black busts — is proof positive, he told me recently. “It's the same as it ever was,” he said.

That's an incendiary statement that was marginalized by another influential black leader named Brown.

In late March, former Mayor Willie Brown used his weekly column in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle to dismiss Amos Brown's Ferguson remarks as akin to 9/11 trutherism (the Chronicle's editors also allowed Willie Brown to repeat an old lie: That Amos Brown had used a 9/11 memorial to blame America for the attacks).

In his most recent Sunday column, however, Willie Brown reversed his opinion, devoting the space to “the story that isn't being addressed at all, namely that San Francisco is a lot more like Ferguson, Mo., than anyone will admit.”

Willie Brown's Ferguson flip-flop took less than three weeks.

The 37 black people arrested in Safe Schools appeared to have been singled out. They were all repeat offenders known to police with rap sheets that read like a criminal's resume: drug possession, drug sales, theft, assault. They were not arrested moments after they allegedly committed these crimes. Their names were given to a prosecutor who then presented the evidence needed for an indictment and a subsequent arrest.

Even Suhr's best defense falls flat. he and U.S. Attorney for Northern California Melinda Haag praised Operation Safe Schools for protecting school kids. But, as defense attorneys pointed out, there's a slight flaw: There are no public schools in the Tenderloin. And, hundreds of other drug deals go down right in front of public schools without attention from federal authorities.

A couple of black leaders are calling on Suhr to do what he does whenever a civilian is killed by police: Call a meeting and present himself, listen to concerns and address them. That would be better than what he appears to be doing now, which is trying to use kids to mask a racial bias.

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