Last October, federal and local officials including U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello and then–San Francisco Police Chief Heather Fong summoned the press to boast about how interagency cooperation had netted a sweeping indictment against 29 members of the violent MS-13 gang.
Now, a year later, recent court filings in that case have revealed previously undisclosed tensions between the feds and San Francisco police officers stoked by the city's sanctuary policies, which generally forbid assisting the federal government with anything connected to immigration laws.
In an order filed Oct. 5, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup wrote that San Francisco's sanctuary protocols caused bureaucratic "stonewalling" by San Francisco cops. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agent Christopher Merendino testified that SFPD gang officers denied him access to "alpha files," comprehensive summaries of suspects' gang activities and history, for two months before ICE finally obtained a grand jury subpoena to force the police to turn over documents. Outside the office, the SFPD sometimes refused to help ICE with field operations; in 2007, police declined an ICE request to stake out a gang meeting in Crocker Amazon Park. On another occasion in 2008 and "numerous" other times, Merendino testified, S.F. police wouldn't help execute search warrants: "San Francisco police officers are very, very concerned about contact with ICE acts ... the policy's very vague," so officers would rather not have any contact with ICE.
Asked why police had to be so cautious, Sergeant Dion McDonnell of SFPD's gang task force testified that the department was "abundantly aware" of the community's negative feelings about ICE.
The feds and cops testified as part of a hearing to determine whether local police had acted as "agents" for ICE during the MS-13 investigation. Defense attorneys argued that they should have access to potentially exculpatory SFPD documents because the feds had relied heavily on police intelligence. Testimony indicates that the two agencies did work together often: In one instance, a confidential informant working for ICE from within the gang provided a tip about MS-13 plans to detonate a grenade in Dolores Park that apparently helped police foil the plot. In his court order, however, Judge Alsup sided with federal prosecutors and ruled that they would not have to comb SFPD's files for possible exculpatory evidence to turn over to lawyers for the gang members, a number of whom the government says are present in the U.S. illegally.
ICE officials declined to comment, citing an ongoing criminal prosecution. But Russoniello said that since he came on the job in January 2008, he has sensed some trepidation on the part of city police officers who are worried "that if they were viewed as having been proactive in supporting federal law enforcement, even law enforcement efforts that are not immigration related, that they'd be criticized." He noted that cooperation has improved recently and that he couldn't think of any time the city's sanctuary policies prevented a federal prosecution, though he added that doesn't mean it hasn't happened.