SFPD At Odds With Feds After Taking Blame For Racist Drug Busts

SFPD At Odds With Feds After Taking Blame For Racist Drug BustsPhoto: AdamChandler86/Flickr
Max Cherney
Published on February 26, 2017

After what was likely millions of dollars and thousands of hours spent investigating, arresting, and prosecuting alleged Tenderloin drug dealers, Operation Safe Schools has come to an end.

The joint law enforcement effort was intended to curb drug dealing near neighborhood schools, using harder federal sentencing guidelines than what the city or state normally brings against defendants. 

But federal prosecutors dropped or handed off the last of the cases in late January, after evidence of racial bias emerged to complicate the claims. The San Francisco Police Department, already facing numerous other race-related criticisms, has been widely faulted for its role in the operation. 

However, procedural missteps and in-court misstatements by the federal prosecutors paved the way for the racism allegations, according to documents we’ve reviewed and statements provided to us on and off the record by law enforcement sources. The SFPD, these sources say, was acting on behalf of the federal agencies.

The result has been a new set of fault lines between the feds and local police — potentially making future collaborations with federal agencies less likely.

Federal Responsibility

Initiated by the U.S. Attorney for Northern California, Operation Safe Schools was intended to “use the law enforcement tools available” on dealers operating nearby schools in the Tenderloin and “ensure that children who live and go to school in these neighborhoods are not exposed to crime and drug dealing.”

Billed as a collaboration between the US Attorney, Drug Enforcement Administration and the SFPD that would utilize federal resources to prosecute longtime, well-known drug dealers. 

As the cases trundled through the federal court system, allegations of race-based enforcement decisions among the San Francisco Police Department officers appeared to taint the prosecution — the feds had indicted 37 African-Americans, but no other ethnic groups.

Defense attorneys on behalf of their clients painted the feds and local cops as conducting an enforcement action with racial bias through a bevy of sworn statements, statistical analysis, and other evidence, including a damning video that showed SFPD officers using racial slurs, and ignoring an Asian drug dealer but arresting a black drug dealers.

In a June 2016 court ruling on a motion joined by 12 of the 37 defendants in Safe Schools, Judge Edward Chen found there was “substantial evidence” of race-based enforcement of the law. He concluded that “defendants have adequately shown some evidence of discriminatory intent, in particular, within the SFPD.” 

At the time, Chen had expressed disbelief that the cops refused to cooperate both at a 2016 hearing and later in court documents. It was this behavior that pushed Judge Chen into accepting, in part, the defense attorney's argument that there was enough evidence to warrant a further investigation into the SFPD’s conduct.

And when prosecutors dismissed the final 12 cases last month — the other 25 had been, over time, sent to pre-trial diversion or dismissed — the implication was that the SFPD had engaged in racially biased policing had tainted the litigation.

“These cases are very hard to prove because you have to show discriminatory intent by the police officers,” outspoken Safe Schools critic Public Defender Jeff Adachi told the Chronicle at the time. “Here, they had that.”

But In the aftermath of the last cases being dropped, city officials are saying that the SFPD did not defend against the Safe Schools racism allegations at the time because it was not properly informed — and is unable to do so now for legal reasons since the cases have been terminated.

“We have no legal venue” to push back the charges of racist policing, Deputy City Attorney Sean Connolly told Hoodline over the telephone.

If the SFPD had been given the chance to fight back, via public court documents, the city would have likely embarrassed the U.S. Attorney’s office, at the very least, or potentially torpedoed careers, at worst, the sources said.

“We were surprised to learn about the allegations [of racism], and were never informed that the allegations had been made about selective enforcement,” Connolly, whose office represents the SFPD and other city agencies, told us. “Our office had gathered over 40 declarations from police officers, experts, and compiled a significant amount of statistical evidence.”

The SFPD’s challenge hinged, in part, on the fact that federal prosecutors had claimed the cops were unwilling to cooperate to rebut the defendant's accusation that officers engaged in race-based policing. 

At a hearing in Federal District Court, Assistant US Attorneys said the SFPD was uncooperative because it was already under fire for the racist text message scandal, among other issues.

According to court papers filed by Connolly, the SFPD was neither present at the hearing in which prosecutors made the claim, nor had been formally made aware of the allegations of racist policing. And the SFPD rejected the federal prosecutors statement alleging cops refused to cooperate.

“We completely disagree with the representation made … that the ‘SFPD is unwilling to cooperate in allegations of racism against them,’” Connolly wrote in a court filing.

In addition, the sources said that it was the feds who established the criteria for the operation: to focus on longtime dealers, well-known to law enforcement with criminal records, prior convictions, and were selling crack-cocaine in the Tenderloin.

When it had viewed the criteria, the SFPD pointed out there was the possibility — even likelihood — it would be accused of biased policing, the sources said. Prosecutors made assurances that so long as the SFPD followed the criteria when producing a list of targets, they would not run afoul of the law. And so the SFPD provided a dossier on suspects that fit the criteria, from which the feds selected and green-lit each of the targets.

“We were prepared to submit evidence that San Francisco police were acting in accordance with the federal government,” Connolly said.

The US Attorney for Northern California has defended its actions and denied that it and the SFPD had used ethnicity when selecting targets for Safe Schools.

“As we told Judge [Edward] Chen, neither the San Francisco Police Department nor this office relied on any impermissible factors when selecting defendants, nor when making any other decisions regarding these prosecutions,” Assistant US Attorney Abraham Simmons wrote in an emailed statement. “We have seen nothing in our investigations or throughout this discovery process to show that there was selective enforcement or selective prosecution in these cases.”

The Federal Public Defender’s Office, which represented many of the Safe Schools defendants did not return several telephone messages seeking comment.

SFPD spokesman Robert Rueca declined to grant Hoodline access to department brass, or answer specific questions about the details of Safe Schools.

“The San Francisco Police Department takes seriously any allegation of biased policing and investigates such allegations thoroughly,” Officer Robert Rueca wrote in an emailed statement.

A Messy Conclusion

Safe Schools attempted to use tough crack-cocaine sentencing laws to reform a dense city neighborhood, long known for its association with the drug trade — a reputation it has been attempting to shed, and in some cases has.

Because the Tenderloin’s blocks mostly fall within 1,000 feet of a school, federal drug indictments can carry a one-year minimum sentence (with a 40-year maximum), and a potential fine of up to $2 million. 

Using a 1991 estimate for processing drug cases, adjusted for inflation, Safe Schools would likely have cost nearly $5 million, a number which is likely on the low end since law enforcement budgets have risen ever since.

Outside of court, Judge Edward Chen’s order stating there was substantial evidence of racial bias among the SFPD officers involved generated a wealth of media attention; And bolstered other allegations of racism, corruption, and violence within the SFPD, namely the texting scandal.

Since the federal cases have been dismissed it’s unclear what, if any, legal ramifications the ruling about the SFPD's alleged racism will have. Due to changes among the SFPD brass and at the national level, city officials told us they are still weighing an official response to Safe Schools. In any case, the local appetite for future federal collaboration is not as strong these days, sources say.  

Meanwhile, drug sales in the Tenderloin continue to hum along. Though some of the faces may have changed, the same rotating selection of narcotics appear on many neighborhood corners.

Assistant US Attorney Simmons told Hoodline in the statement his office holds no animosity toward its work with local law enforcement. “As always, we look forward to working with our law enforcement partners, including the SFPD, in ensuring that our communities are safe,” he wrote.

For his part, outspoken Safe Schools critic Public Defender Jeff Adachi emailed a statement via a spokeswoman. “It seems that the U.S. Attorney and SPFD are now pointing fingers at one another,” he wrote. “… Rather than to lay blame, they should turn their efforts to ensure this never happens again.”