Suhr sounds open to Portland-style FBI terrorism taskforce resolution

Pub date June 21, 2011
WriterSarah Phelan
SectionPolitics Blog

When the Guardian sat down with SFPD Chief Greg Suhr last week, it was shortly after the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved Julius Turman as the next Police Commissioner. Turman’s appointment means the Commission, which provides civilian oversight of SFPD’s policies and procedures, now has seven members, once again, and thus can get on with addressing important outstanding issues, including what to do about the FBI’s hitherto secret agreement around SFPD officers assigned to the FBI’s terrorism taskforce.

At issue is an agreement with the FBI that then SFPD Chief Heather Fong signed in March 2007, but the Police Commission never reviewed. Further complicating the issue is the fact that in December 2008, the FBI introduced looser surveillance guidelines that appear to clash head-on with SFPD’s tighter surveillance policies, which require reasonable suspicion before any spying can be approved.

During Suhr’s first few weeks as Chief, the Police Commission and the Human Rights Commission held a joint hearing on the FBI’s hitherto secret agreement with the SFPD. And during that meeting, Suhr introduced a new bureau order which clarified that, under Suhr’s command, SFPD surveillance policies trump the FBI guidelines.

But civil rights advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Asian Law Caucus, continued to raise concerns. And evidently Suhr has listened to them. During our interview, Suhr told me that he met with ACLU’s John Crew, and Crew explained that Suhr’s new bureau order is only a temporary solution.

“It’s only a remedy as long as I am Chief,” Suhr explained, noting that the ACLU wants to sit down and review the matter and see if there is a way to tighten any loopholes,

“And if we can’t reach accord with the FBI, then we’ll talk about how to move forward with a Portland-style resolution,” Suhr said, referring to a recent decision by the Portland city council in Oregon not to sign the FBI’s agreement, and instead draft its own resolution to better define the terms and conditions under which local officers can participate in the FBI-led joint terrorism taskforce.

Asked what he thought about the FBI’s decision not to send a representative to address community concerns at the joint hearing of the San Francisco Police Commission and Human Rights Commission, Suhr replied, “I don’t think they [the FBI] thought it would be productive,” adding that his talks with Stephanie Douglas, the FBI Special Agent in charge of the terrorism taskforce, have been very “productive” so far.