Jurors who recently convicted a man caught in a police car theft sting for truTV's Bait Car reality show have penned a seething letter to former Police Chief George Gascón blasting the operation. In a Jan. 3 letter to the chief obtained by SF Weekly, the jurors "object strongly" to the cops' participation in the show. (The full text of the letter is at the bottom of this post.)
We wrote about the San Francisco Police Department's cooperation with reality TV producers to bust people for stealing cars in this week's cover story "The Gotcha Channel."
The police received more than $200,000 in overtime and two bait cars to do the sting.
Cops, judges, and defense attorneys have gone on the record with concerns about the show, but now jurors are sounding-off to San Francisco's top cop, who has since become district attorney
, about their "serious concerns" over the sting operation.
The letter was written by jury forewoman Donna Rabin, a former high school English teacher who recently earned a creative writing master's at University of San Francisco. She wrote on behalf of seven jurors in the Dec.20-22 trial of Eric Dupree, who was facing charges of felony car theft and misdemeanor obstruction of justice. The jury found him guilty of the theft, but acquitted him on the obstruction of justice charge. Dupree decided to represent himself, and provided a rambling, barely coherent defense that made little reference to the reality show, Rabin told SF Weekly. At one point during his epically long closing argument, "The judge finally said, 'You have 10 minutes, Mr. Dupree. This is your ten minute warning,'" Rabin recalls.
The jury had to piece together the fact the arrest was taped by a reality show after seeing cameramen show up in the footage entered as evidence during the trial. "Everyone was just really angry and disgusted," she says. "I don't think people on the jury want to see it this way, but I think [finding him not guilty on the obstruction of justice charge] was our tiny little attempt at civil disobedience like, we can't follow the law on this." Dupree faces sentencing on Feb. 28, according to court records.
In the letter, Rabin starts by questioning the SFPD's contract with the show's producers, KKI, saying it was "problematic" that the show producers paid police overtime. She then questioned the need to have as many as 10 cops available to bust one car thief:
"Let me state that the defendant was a single, unarmed man who drove the car 1 1/2 blocks before being arrested. The number of officers involved in this operation is extremely high: Is this truly the best use of manpower?"
Rabin wrote that in finding Dupree not guilty of obstruction of justice, the jurors considered the fact the man appeared to only get agitated when he saw the camera crew recording his arrest:
"While Mr. Dupree did indeed become angry, his delay of arrest was clearly related to his alarm at seeing the film crew. He did not mount any resistance to the police officers until he saw men circling him with cameras--and the audio revealed that he was continually shouting, "Get the cameras out of here!"
Rabin stated that the jury had set aside "personal issues, such as disgust with reality TV," but questioned whether the operation reduced crime or created it:
"...the set-up -- a car left with the keys inside and the passenger door open - could tempt someone who is desperate, rather than a genuine threat to society. Another possibility, is that once the car has been stolen, there is potential for a chase. All of this makes for great entertainment, but is, in reality, truly dangerous."
It's important to note that the cops can remotely shut down the bait car to prevent a car chase (though in at least one episode from other cities, this has broken down and led to a police chase). The San Francisco episodes aired so far have shown only one high-speed getaway: in the Mission District during the day, before the cops shut down the car.
In the liberal bastion of San Francisco, this is not the first time jurors have complained about police stings. We've blogged before about jurors writing angry e-mails
to judges and the public defender about the SFPD's Robbery Abatement Team operations. In those stings, the police pose as drunks or tourists with a $20 bill hanging out of their pocket, and walk around in dodgy parts of the city, waiting for someone to rob them.
Another juror from the Bait Car trial has blogged about the experience, saying that in jury selection the prosecutor asked whether they had a problem with "proactive police work."
"At the time," the juror wrote, "I had no idea that this case would be as massively proactive as it turned out to be."
Here's the complete text of the letter:
An Open Letter to George Gascón, San Francisco Police Department Chief:
From December 20 to 22, 2010, I served as jury foreperson on the criminal case of People vs. Eric Dupree. The issues raised during the trial involved the bait car policy of San Francisco Police Department. I am writing to you now, on behalf of myself and fellow jurors who have signed below, to express my serious concerns with the agreement between SFPD and KKI Productions, producers of the reality TV show, Bait Car.
First, I would like to state that we understand the need for proactive policing. Many of us have been the victims of car theft and we want our city to be a safe place. We are also well aware of the budgetary crisis that is affecting the city of San Francisco, and the need to make difficult choices. I have reviewed the contract with KKI Productions (SFPD Police Commission Form 101298-ZE), and understand the benefits for SFPD, including the receipt of two bait cars and the KKI's agreement to pay overtime for SFPD police officers who participate in the bait car operations.
Despite these benefits, we object strongly to this collaboration with KKI Productions - not only in principle, but because it negatively affected our obligation to follow the law in our deliberations. I will explain our main objections below.
The goal of the producers of Bait Car is obviously to make a TV show that people will want to watch. A quick review of the tru-TV website reveals that Bait Car is one of numerous reality TV shows produced by this station, which also include Hardcore Pawn and Las Vegas Jailhouse. This leads us to wonder if crime is trivialized.
In each 30-minute episode of Bait Car, a car is stolen and police officers then recapture the car and arrest the car thief. The agreement with KKI states that each episode must conclude with credits thanking "the city of San Francisco and the men and women of the San Francisco Police Department." The police clearly are receiving credit as the "good guys." But who are the "bad guys"? A quick review of the episodes on the site reveals that the vast majority are African-American and Latino. We are concerned with the stereotypes that are perpetuated by continually portraying these episodes.
Our experiences with this particular case raised even more serious questions. While the receipt of the bait cars is clearly a benefit to the city in its proactive policing operations, the promise of overtime pay for police officers seems more problematic. From the testimony during the trial, we learned that 8-10 police officers - plus the two decoys who planted the bait car - were involved in this arrest. Let me state that the defendant was a single unarmed man who drove the car 1 ½ blocks before being arrested. The number of officers involved in this operation is extremely high; is this truly the best use of manpower?
As jury members, we took very seriously our need to make a choice that was guided by legal principles. The defendant was charged with car theft (a felony) and with delay/obstruction of justice (a misdemeanor). We tried to set aside any personal issues, such as disgust with reality TV. Based on the video of the crime, we unanimously agreed that the defendant was guilty of this felony. Yet as we examined whether the defendant was guilty of delay of his arrest, the presence of the TV crew was a factor we had no choice but to consider. While Mr. Dupree did indeed become angry, his delay of arrest was clearly related to his alarm at seeing the film crew. He did not mount any resistance to the police officers, until he saw men circling him with cameras - and the audio revealed that he was continually shouting, "Get the cameras out of here!" We were upset to be put in a position where we could not in good conscience follow the exact letter of the law: While the defendant did indeed delay his arrest, it seemed highly questionable whether he would have done so, if the film crew had not been present.
It is all too easy to imagine other situations where the motivation of the TV producers - to make a good TV show - could create rather than reduce criminal activity. For example, the set-up -- a car left with the keys inside and the passenger door open - could tempt someone who is desperate rather than a genuine threat to society. Another possibility is that once the car has been stolen, there is potential for a chase. All of this makes for great entertainment, but is, in reality, truly dangerous.
We urge you to reconsider the agreement between San Francisco Police Department and KKI Productions, and discontinue involvement with Bait Car. Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Donna Rabin, jury foreperson
On behalf of fellow jurors: Peter Beynon, Michael DeBellis, Ann Kappes, Sally Nielsen, Marcia Omachi, Matthew Russell, and one additional juror, name withheld