Public safety adrift

Pub date February 11, 2009
WriterSarah Phelan


Shortly into his first term as mayor, Gavin Newsom told a caller on talk radio — who was threatening to start a recall campaign if the mayor didn’t solve the city’s homicide problem — that Newsom might sign his own recall petition if he didn’t succeed in reducing violent crime.

But Newsom didn’t reduce violence — indeed, it spiked during his tenure — nor did he hold himself or anyone else accountable. Guardian interviews and research show that the city doesn’t have a clear and consistent public safety strategy. Instead, politics and personal loyalty to Newsom are driving what little official debate there is about issues ranging from the high murder rate to protecting immigrants.

The dynamic has played out repeatedly in recent years, on issues that include police foot patrols, crime cameras, the Community Justice Court, policies toward cannabis clubs, gang injunctions, immigration policy, municipal identification cards, police-community relations, reform of San Francisco Police Department policies on the use of force, and the question of whether SFPD long ago needed new leadership.

Newsom’s supporters insist he is committed to criminal justice. But detractors say that Newsom’s political ambition, management style, and personal hang-ups are the key to understanding why, over and over again, he fires strong but politically threatening leaders and stands by mediocre but loyal managers. And it explains how and why a vacuum opened at the top of the city’s criminal justice system, a black hole that was promptly exploited by San Francisco-based U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello, who successfully pressured Newsom to weaken city policies that protected undocumented immigrants accused of crimes.

Since appointing Heather Fong as chief of the San Francisco Police Department in 2004, Newsom has heard plenty of praise for this hardworking, morally upright administrator. But her lack of leadership skills contributed to declining morale in the ranks. So when he hired the conservative and controversial Kevin Ryan as director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice — the only U.S. Attorney fired for incompetence during the Bush administration’s politicized 2006 purge of the Department of Justice, despite Ryan’s statements of political loyalty to Bush — most folks assumed it was because Newsom had gubernatorial ambitions and wanted to look tough on crime.

Now, with Fong set to retire and a new presidential administration signaling that Russoniello’s days may be numbered, some change may be in the offing. But with immigrant communities angrily urging reform, and Newsom and Ryan resisting it, there are key battles ahead before San Francisco can move toward a coherent and compassionate public safety strategy.


The combination of Ryan, Fong, and Newsom created a schizophrenic approach to public policy, particularly when it came to immigrants. Fong supported the sanctuary city policies that barred SFPD from notifying federal authorities about interactions with undocumented immigrants, but Ryan and many cops opposed them. That led to media leaks of juvenile crime records that embarrassed Newsom and allowed Russoniello and other conservatives to force key changes to this cherished ordinance.

Russoniello had opposed the city’s sanctuary legislation from the moment it was introduced by then Mayor Dianne Feinstein in the 1980s, when he serving his first term as the U.S. Attorney for Northern California. But it wasn’t until two decades later that Russoniello succeeded in forcing Newsom to adopt a new policy direction, a move that means local police and probation officials must notify federal authorities at the time of booking adults and juveniles whom they suspect of committing felonies

Newsom’s turnabout left the immigrant community wondering if political ambition had blinded the mayor to their constitutional right to due process since his decision came on the heels of his announcement that he was running for governor. Juvenile and immigrant advocates argue that all youth have the right to defend themselves, yet they say innocent kids can now be deported without due process to countries where they don’t speak the native language and no longer have family members, making them likely to undertake potentially fatal border crossings in an effort to return to San Francisco.

Abigail Trillin of Legal Services for Children, cites the case of a 14-year-old who is in deportation proceedings after being arrested for bringing a BB gun to school. "He says he was going to play with it in the park afterwards, cops and robbers," Trillin says. "His deportation proceedings were triggered not because he was found guilty of a felony, but because he was charged with one when he was booked. He spent Christmas in a federal detention facility in Washington state. Now he’s back in San Francisco, but only temporarily. This boy’s family has other kids, they are part of our community. His father is a big, strong man, but every time he comes into our office to talk, he is in tears."

Another client almost got referred to U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) even though he was a victim of child abuse. And a recent referral involved a kid who has been here since he was nine months old. "If the mayor genuinely wants to reach out to the immigrant community, he needs to understand how this community has perceived what has happened," Trillin said. "Namely, having a policy that allows innocent youth to be turned over to ICE."

Social workers point out that deporting juveniles for selling crack, rather than diverting them into rehabilitation programs, does nothing to guarantee that they won’t return to sell drugs on the streets. And making the immigrant community afraid to speak to law enforcement and social workers allows gangs and bullies to act with impunity.

"This is bad policy," Trillin stated. "Forget about the rights issues. You are creating a sub class. These youths are getting deported, but they are coming back. And when they do, they don’t live with their families or ask for services. They are going far underground. They can’t show up at their family’s home, their schools or services, or in hospitals. So the gang becomes their family, and they probably owe the gang money."

Noting that someone who is deported may have children or siblings or parents who depend on them for support, Sup. John Avalos said, "There need to be standards. The city has the capability and knows how to work this out. I think the new policy direction was a choice that was made to try and minimize impacts to the mayor’s career."

But Matt Dorsey, spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office, told the Guardian that the Sanctuary City ordinance never did assure anyone due process. "The language actually said that protection did not apply if an individual was arrested for felony crimes," Dorsey said. "People have lost sight of the fact that the policy was adopted because of a law enforcement rationale, namely so victims of crime and those who knew what was going on at the street level wouldn’t be afraid to talk to police."

Angela Chan of the Asian Law Caucus, along with the San Francisco Immigrant Rights Defense Committee, a coalition of more than 30 community groups, has sought — so far in vain — to get the city to revisit the amended policy. "The city could have reformulated its ordinance to say that we’ll notify ICE if kids are found guilty, do not qualify for immigration relief, and are repeat or violent offenders," Chan said. "That’s what we are pushing. We are not saying never refer youth. We are saying respect due process."

Asked if Newsom will attend a Feb. 25 town hall meeting that immigrant rights advocates have invited him to, so as to reopen the dialogue about this policy shift, mayoral spokesperson Nathan Ballard told the Guardian, "I can’t confirm that at this time."

Sitting in Newsom’s craw is the grand jury investigation that Russoniello convened last fall to investigate whether the Juvenile Probation Department violated federal law. "Ever since the City found out that the grand jury is looking into it, they brought in outside counsel and everything is in deep freeze," an insider said. "The attitude around here is, let the whole thing play out. The city is taking it seriously. But I hope it’s a lot of saber rattling [by Russoniello’s office]."

Dorsey told the Guardian that "the only reason the city knew that a grand jury had been convened was when they sent us a subpoena for our 1994 opinion on the Sanctuary City policy, a document that was actually posted online at our website. Talk about firing a shot over the bow!"

Others joke that one reason why the city hired well-connected attorney Cristina Arguedas to defend the city in the grand jury investigation was the city’s way of saying, ‘Fuck You, Russoniello!" "She is Carole Migden’s partner and was on O.J. Simpson’s dream team," an insider said. "She and Russoniello tangled over the Barry Bonds stuff. They hate each other."

Shannon Wilber, executive director of Legal Services for Children, says Russoniello’s theory seems to be that by providing any services to these people, public or private, you are somehow vioutf8g federal statutes related to harboring fugitives. "But if you were successful in making that argument, that would make child protection a crime," Wilber says, adding that her organization is happy to work with young people, but it has decided that it is not going to accept any more referrals from the Juvenile Probation Department.

"We no longer have the same agenda," Wilber said. "Our purpose in screening these kids is to see if they qualify for any relief, not to deport people or cut them off from services."

Wilber’s group now communicates with the Public Defender’s Office instead. "Between 80 and 100 kids, maybe more, have been funneled to ICE since this new policy was adopted," Wilber said. "This is creating an under class of teens, who are marginalized, in hiding and not accessing educational and health services for fear of being stopped and arrested for no good reason, other than that their skin is brown and they look Latino".

Wilber understands that the new policy direction came from the Mayor’s Office, in consultation with JPD, plus representatives from the US Attorney’s office and ICE. "They bargained with them," Wilber said. "They basically said, what are you guys going to be satisfied with, and the answer was that the city should contact them about anyone who has been charged and booked with a felony, and who is suspected of being undocumented."

She hopes "something shifts" with the new administration of President Barack Obama, and that there will be "enough pressure in the community to persuade the Mayor’s Office to at least amend, if not eliminate, the new policy," Wilber said "The cost of what the city is doing, compared to what it did, is the flashing light that everyone should be looking at."

"It costs so much more to incarcerate kids and deport them, compared to flying them home," she explained. "And we have cast a pall over the entire immigrant community. It will be difficult to undo that. Once people have been subjected to these tactics, it’s not easy to return to a situation of trust. We are sowing the seeds of revolution."


When Newsom tapped Republican attorney Kevin Ryan to head the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice a year ago, the idea was that this high-profile guy might bring a coherent approach to setting public safety policy, rather than lurch from issue to issue as Newsom had.

Even City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who isn’t considered close to Newsom, praised the decision in a press release: "In Kevin Ryan, Mayor Newsom has landed a stellar pick to lead the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. Kevin has been a distinguished jurist, an accomplished prosecutor, and a valued partner to my office in helping us develop protocols for civil gang injunctions. San Franciscans will be extremely well served by the talent and dedication he will bring to addressing some of the most important and difficult problems facing our city."

But the choice left most folks speechless, particularly given Ryan’s history of prosecuting local journalists and supporting federal drug raids. Why on earth had the Democratic mayor of one of the most liberal cities in the nation hired the one and only Bush loyalist who had managed to get himself fired for being incompetent instead of being disloyal like the other fired U.S. Attorneys?

The answer, from those in the know, was that Newsom was seriously flirting with the idea of running for governor and hired Ryan to beef up his criminal justice chops. "If you are going to run for governor, you’ve got to get to a bunch of law and order people," one insider told us.

Ryan proceeded to upset civil libertarians with calls to actively monitor police surveillance cameras (which can only be reviewed now if a crime is reported), medical marijuana activists with recommendations to collect detailed patient information, and immigrant communities by delaying the rollout of the municipal identity card program.

"In the long run, hopefully, dissatisfaction with Ryan will grow," Assembly Member Tom Ammiano told us last year when he was a supervisor. "He could become a liability for [Newsom], and only then will Newsom fire him, because that’s how he operates."

Others felt that Ryan’s impact was overstated and that the city continued to have a leadership vacuum on public safety issues. "What has happened to MOCJ since Ryan took over?" one insider said. "He doesn’t have much of a staff anymore. No one knows what he is doing. He does not return calls. He has no connections. He’s not performing. Everyone basically describes him with the same words – paranoid, retaliatory, and explosive – as they did during the investigation of the U.S. attorneys firing scandal."

"I’ve only met him three times since he took the job," Delagnes said. "I guess he takes his direction from the mayor. He’s supposed to be liaison between Mayor’s Office and the SFPD. When he accepted the job, I was, OK, what does that mean? He has never done anything to help or hinder us."

But it was when the sanctuary city controversy hit last fall that Ryan began to take a more active role. Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Eileen Hirst recalls that "MOCJ was essentially leaderless for five years, and Ryan was brought in to create order and revitalize the office. And the first thing that really happened was the controversy over handling undocumented immigrant detainees."

One prime example of Ryan’s incompetence was how it enabled Russoniello to wage his successful assault on the city’s cherished sanctuary ordinance last year. Internal communications obtained by the Guardian through the Sunshine Ordinance show efforts by the Newsom administration to contain the political damage from reports of undocumented immigrants who escaped from city custody.

Newsom solidly supported the Sanctuary City Ordinance during his first term, as evidenced by an April 2007 e-mail that aide Wade Crowfoot sent to probation leaders asking for written Sanctuary City protocols. But these demands may have drawn unwelcome attention.

"This is what caused the firestorm regarding undocumented persons," JPD Assistant Chief Allen Nance wrote in August 2008 as he forwarded an e-mail thread that begins with Crowfoot’s request.

"Agreed," replied probation chief William Siffermann. "The deniability on the part of one is not plausible."

Shortly after Ryan started his MOCJ gig, the Juvenile Probation Department reached out to him about a conflict with ICE. They asked if they could set up something with the U.S. Attorney’s Office but the meeting got canceled and Ryan never rescheduled it.

Six weeks passed before the city was hit with the bombshell that another San Francisco probation officer had been intercepted at Houston Airport by ICE special agents as he escorted two minors to connecting flights to Honduras. They threatened him with arrest.

"Special Agent Mark Fluitt indicated that federal law requires that we report all undocumenteds, and San Francisco Juvenile Court is vioutf8g federal law," JPD’s Carlos Gonzalez reported. "Although I was not arrested, the threat was looming throughout the interrogation."

Asked to name the biggest factors that influenced Newsom’s decision to shift policy, mayoral spokesperson Nathan Ballard cites a May 19 meeting in which Siffermann briefed the mayor about JPD’s handling of undocumented felons on matters related to transportation to other countries and notification of ICE.

"That morning Mayor Newsom directed Siffermann to stop the flights immediately," Ballard told the Guardian. "That same morning the mayor directed Judge Kevin Ryan to gather the facts about whether JPD’s notification practices were appropriate and legal. By noon, Judge Ryan had requested a meeting with ICE, the U.S. Attorney, and Chief Siffermann to discuss the issue. On May 21, that meeting occurred at 10:30 a.m. in Room 305 of City Hall."

Ballard claims Ryan advised the mayor that some of JPD’s court-sanctioned practices might be inconsistent with federal law and initiated the process of reviewing and changing the city’s policies in collaboration with JPD, ICE, the U.S. Attorney, and the City Attorney.

Asked how much Ryan has influenced the city’s public safety policy, Ballard replied, "He is the mayor’s key public safety adviser."

Records show Ryan advising Ballard and Ginsburg to "gird your loins in the face of an August 2008 San Francisco Chronicle article that further attacked the city’s policy. "Russoniello is quoted as saying, "This is the closest thing I have ever seen to harboring,’" Ryan warned. And that set the scene for Newsom to change his position on Sanctuary City.


When Fong, the city’s first female chief and one of the first Asian American women to lead a major metropolitan police force nationwide, announced her retirement in December, Police Commission President Theresa Sparks noted that she had brought "a sense of integrity to the department." Fellow commissioner David Onek described her as "a model public servant" and residents praised her outreach to the local Asian community.

Fong was appointed in 2004 in the aftermath of Fajitagate, a legal and political scandal that began in 2002 with a street fight involving three off-duty SFPD cops and two local residents, and ended several years later with one chief taking a leave of absense, another resigning, and Fong struggling to lead the department. "It’s bad news to have poor managerial skills leading any department. But when everyone in that department is waiting for you to fail, then you are in real trouble," an SFPD source said.

Gary Delagnes, executive director of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, hasn’t been afraid to criticize Fong publicly, or Newsom for standing by her as morale suffered. "Chief Fong has her own style, a very introverted, quiet, docile method of leadership. And it simply hasn’t worked for the members of the department. A high percentage [of officers] believe change should have been made a long time ago."

But Newsom refused to consider replacing Fong, even as the stand began to sour his relationship with the SFPOA, which has enthusiastically supported Newsom and the mayor’s candidates for other city offices.

"The day the music died," as Delagnes explains it, was in the wake of the SFPD’s December 2005 Videogate scandal. Fong drew heavy fire when she supported the mayor in his conflict with officer Andrew Cohen and 21 other officers who made a videotape for a police Christmas party. Newsom angrily deemed the tape racist, sexist, and homophobic at a press conference where Fong called the incident SFPD’s "darkest day."

"Heather let the mayor make her look like a fool. Who is running this department? And aren’t the department’s darkest days when cops die?" Delagnes said, sitting in SFPOA’s Sixth Street office, where photographs and plaques commemorate officers who have died in service.

Delagnes supports the proposal to give the new chief a five-year contract, which was part of a package of police reforms recommended by a recent report that Newsom commissioned but hasn’t acted on. "You don’t want to feel you are working at the whim of every politician and police commission," Delagnes said. But he doubts a charter amendment is doable this time around, given that the Newsom doesn’t support the idea and Fong has said she wants to retire at the end of April.

"I’d like to see a transition to a new chief on May 1," Delagnes said. "And so far, there’s been no shortage of applications. Whoever that person is, whether from inside or outside [of SFPD], must be able to lead us out of the abysmally low state of morale the department is in."

Delagnes claims that police chiefs have little to do with homicide rates, and that San Francisco is way below the average compared to other cities. "But when that rate goes from 80 to 100, everyone goes crazy and blames it on the cops. None of us want to see people killed, but homicides are a reality of any big city. So what can you do to reduce them? Stop them from happening."

But critics of SFPD note that few homicide cases result in arrests, and there is a perception that officers are lazy. That view was bolstered by the case of Hugues de la Plaza, a French national who was living in San Francisco when he was stabbed to death in 2007. SFPD investigators suggested it was a suicide because the door was locked from the inside and did little to thoroughly investigate, although an investigation by the French government recently concluded that it was clearly a homicide.

Delagnes defended his colleagues, saying two of SFPD’s most experienced homicide detectives handled the case and that "our guys are standing behind it."


Sparks said she didn’t know Fong was planning to retire in April until 45 minutes before Chief Fong made the announcement on Newsom’s December 20 Saturday morning radio show. "I think she decided it was time," Sparks told the Guardian. "But she’s not leaving tomorrow. She’s waiting so there can be an orderly transition."

By announcing she will be leaving in four months, Fong made it less likely that voters would have a chance to weigh in on the D.C.-based Police Executives Reform Forum’s recommendation that the next SFPD chief be given a five-year contract.

"The mayor believes that the chief executive of a city needs to have the power to hire and fire his department heads in order to ensure accountability," Newsom’s communications director Nathan Ballard told the Guardian.

According to the city charter, the Police Commission reviews all applications for police chief before sending three recommendations to the mayor. Newsom then either makes the final pick, or the process repeats. This is same process used to select Fong in 2004, with one crucial difference: the commission then was made up of five mayoral appointees. Today it consists of seven members, four appointed by the mayor, three by the Board of Supervisors.

Last month the commission hired Roseville-based headhunter Bob Murray and Associates to conduct the search in a joint venture with the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, which recently completed an organizational assessment of the SFPD. Intended to guide the SFPD over the next decade, the study recommends expanding community policies, enhancing information services, and employing Tasers to minimize the number of deadly shootings by officers.

"The mayor tends to favor the idea [of Tasers] but is concerned about what he is hearing about the BART case and wants closer scrutiny of the issue," Ballard told us last week.

Potential candidates with San Francisco experience include former SFPD deputy chief Greg Suhr, Taraval Station Captain Paul Chignell, and San Mateo’s first female police chief, Susan Manheimer, who began her career with the SFPD, where her last assignment was as captain of the Tenderloin Task Force.

"It would be wildly premature to comment on the mayor’s preference for police chief at this time," Ballard told the Guardian.

Among the rank and file, SFPD insider Greg Suhr is said to be the leading contender. "He’s very politically connected, and he is Sup. Bevan Dufty’s favorite," said a knowledgeable source. "The mayor would be afraid to not get someone from the SFPD rank and file."

Even if Newsom is able to find compromise with the immigrant communities and soften his tough new stance on the Sanctuary City policy, sources say he and the new chief would need to be able to stand up to SFPD hardliners who push back with arguments that deporting those arrested for felonies is how we need to get rid of criminals, reduce homicides, and stem the narcotics trade.

"The police will say, you have very dangerous and violent potential felons preying on other immigrants in the Mission and beyond," one source told us. "They would say [that] these are the people who are dying. So if you are going to try and take away our tools — including referring youth to ICE on booking — then we will fight and keep on doing it."

While that attitude is understandable from the strictly law and order perspective, is this the public safety policy San Francisco residents really want? And is it a decision based on sound policy and principles, or merely political expediency?

Sup. David Campos, who arrived in this country at age 14 as an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, says he is trying to get his arms around the city’s public safety strategy. "For me, the most immediate issue is the traffic stops in some of the neighborhoods, especially in the Mission and the Tenderloin," said Campos, a member of the Public Safety Committee whose next priority is revisiting the Sanctuary City Ordinance. "I’m hopeful the Mayor’s Office will reconsider its position. But if not, I’m looking at what avenues the board can pursue.

"I understand there was a horrible and tragic incident," Campos added, referring to the June 22, 2008 slaying of three members of the Bologna family, for which Edwin Ramos, who had cycled in and out of the city’s juvenile justice system and is an alleged member of the notoriously violent MS-13 gang, charged with murder for shooting with an AK-47 assault weapon. "But I think it is bad to make public policy based on one incident like that. To me, the focus should be, how do we get violent crime down and how do we deal with homicides?"

Campos believes Ryan has sidetracked the administration with conservative hot-button issues like giving municipal ID cards to undocumented residents, installing more crime cameras, and cracking down on the cannabis clubs. "I’m trying to understand the role of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice," Campos said, raising the possibility that it might be eliminated as part of current efforts to close a large budget deficit. "In tough times, can we afford to have them?"

The change in Washington could also counter San Francisco’s move to the right. Federal authorities, swamped by claims of economic fraud and Ponzi schemes, might lose interest in punishing San Francisco for its Sanctuary City-related activities now that President Barack Obama has vowed to address immigration reform, saying he wants to help "12 million people step out of the shadows."

"It’s hard to believe that there isn’t going to be some kind of change," another criminal justice community source told us. "A lot of this is Joe Russoniello’s thing. Sanctuary City ordinances and policies have been a target of his for years."

Rumors swirled last week that Russoniello might have already received his marching orders when Sen. Barbara Boxer announced her judicial nomination committees, which make recommendations to Obama for U.S. District Court judges, attorneys, and marshals.
Boxer will likely be responsible for any vacancies in the northern and southern districts, while Feinstein, who is socially friendly with the Russoniello family, will take charge of the central and eastern districts. Criminal justice noted that Arguedas, who San Francisco hired to defend itself against Russoniello’s grand jury investigation, is on Boxer’s Northern District nomination committee.
Boxer spokesperson Natalie Ravitz told the Guardian she was not going to comment on the protocol or process for handling a possible vacancy. "What I can tell you is that Sen. Boxer is accepting applications for the position of U.S. Attorney for the Southern District (San Diego), a position that is considered vacant," Ravitz told us. "Sen. Feinstein is handling the vacancy for the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District. Beyond that I am not going to comment. If you have further questions, I suggest you call the Department of Justice press office."
DOJ referred us to the White House, where a spokesperson did not reply before press time. Meanwhile Russoniello has been publicly making the case for why he should stay, telling The Recorder legal newspaper in SF that morale in the U.S. Attorney’s San Francisco office is much improved, with fewer lawyers choosing to leave since he took over from Ryan.
That’s small consolation, given widespread press reports that Ryan had destroyed morale in the office with leadership that was incompetent, paranoid, and fueled by conservative ideological crusades. Now the question is whether a city whose criminal justice approach has been dictated by Ryan, Fong, and Newsom — none of whom would speak directly to the Guardian for this story — can also be reformed.