Crooked cops

Pub date March 4, 2014

It’s a bombshell police scandal befitting San Francisco’s restive mood, dropping at a time when simmering class tensions have been making national news, and one more example of how the poor are getting trammeled by those with power.

As politicians and tech titans were trying to make the gritty central city more welcoming to corporations and their workers three years ago, a half-dozen plain-clothed police officers were allegedly abusing poor people, illegally busting into their rooms, stealing anything that had value, forcing criminals to sell stolen drugs for them, and repeatedly telling lies in police reports.

When the targets of these abuses complained to the authorities, they were dismissed or ignored. Only when Public Defender Jeff Adachi and his investigators found and publicly revealed damning video surveillance from the targeted single-room occupancy hotels did federal authorities launch an investigation.

Adachi held press conferences in March and May of 2011 showing officers brutalizing SRO residents and leaving their rooms with laptops and other valuables that were never booked as evidence. When Greg Suhr was sworn in as police chief in April 2011, he put the officers on administrative duties, forced some to give up their weapons, changed department policies to deter cops from barging into people’s rooms without warrants or probable cause, and cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the case.

That investigation resulted in federal grand jury indictments that were unsealed on Feb. 27, charging six SFPD cops with a variety of serious charges, including civil rights violations and conspiracies, theft, extortion, drug conspiracies, and falsification of records.

They are Officers Arshad Razzak, Richard Yick, and Raul Eric Elias, who worked in Southern Station, dealing with residents of SoMa SROs; and Sgt. Ian Furminger, Officer Edmond Robles, and Reynaldo Vargas (who Suhr says was dismissed from SFPD for unrelated reasons as the investigation got underway), who worked in Mission Station, where the drug conspiracy allegedly took place, on top of shakedowns in Mission District SROs.

All defendants are facing more than 20 years in prison (except Elias, who faces 10 years for civil rights conspiracy and one year for deprivation of rights under color of law). The Southern Station defendants are also facing $250,000 in fines. The Mission Station defendants face $1 million in fines on the drug conspiracy charges, which allegedly involved having informants sell a few pounds worth of marijuana seized by police.

Attorney Michael Rains, who represents Razzak and has been designated by the San Francisco Police Officers Association as a spokesperson for the others, told the Guardian that all the defendants had difficult undercover jobs in the murky world of informants and drug dealers.

“There was sloppiness in the reporting [in officials police reports], but sloppiness doesn’t rise to the level of criminal activity,” Rains told us, questioning the credibility of witnesses who have criminal records and the reliability and context of the video evidence.

But Suhr strongly condemned the behavior outlined in the criminal complaints, telling reporters that other SFPD officers connected to the case may still face disciplinary action and that, “My officers know I will not have dishonest cops among us.”

He called the indictments a serious blow to the SFPD, appearing to choke up with emotion.

“Our department is shaken,” Suhr, who has been with the SFPD more than 30 years, told reporters. “This is as serious a matter as I’ve ever encountered in the Police Department.”

Yet Suhr also distanced himself from scandal, telling reporters, “This conduct occurred before my time as chief.”

Most of the alleged crimes happened under former Police Chief and current District Attorney George Gascón shortly before he made that transition, one in which critics at the time raised concerns about whether he could be an effective watchdog of SFPD misconduct. That conflict of interest was what sent this case to the feds.

“It is extremely disappointing that the officers violated the trust of the community and tarnished the reputation of all the hard working men and women in uniform,” Gascón said in a press release.

During a brief press conference that afternoon, Gascón denied responsibility for the misconduct: “Anytime you have a large organization, you are going to have people who operate outside the boundaries of what is acceptable.”

Asked by the Guardian when he became aware of allegations that his officers were abusing SRO residents, he said, “We became aware at the same time everyone else did, when the videos came out.”

Gascón’s Press Secretary Alex Bastian cut the press availability off after 10 minutes so Gascón could prepare for his State of Public Safety speech that afternoon, but Bastian told the Guardian he would get answers to our questions about the office’s police accountability record.

“When appropriate, we ensure the integrity of the system is not compromised by referring cases to other prosecuting agencies. In the abundance of caution, when this case was brought to my attention, I referred the case to the federal authorities to safeguard a thorough investigation and guarantee maximum consequences,” Gascón said in a prepared response, while Bastian ignored our requests for more responsive answers to our questions.

But Adachi says these indictments are just the tip of the police misconduct iceberg, charging that police officers routinely lie in police reports and in court to justify illegal searches and other abuses of defendants who are poor or have drug problems, knowing that judges and juries tend to believe cops over criminals.

“The indictments today are a victory for ordinary San Franciscans,” Adachi told reporters, emphasizing that in addition to personally profiting from the shakedowns, these officers were also submitting false testimony in perhaps hundreds of cases, including about 100 that his office has gotten dismissed. “These allegations not only involve violations of the constitutional rights of our clients, but also lying on police records that were used to send individuals to prison based on the testimony of these officers.”

Residents and employees of the Henry Hotel, one of four SROs involved in this case, told the Guardian that the indictments are a rare repudiation of police mistreatment of SRO residents, which they say continues to the day.

“A lot of these people need help. They need guidance. They need a program. They need somebody to motivate them to go to their programs, not a fucking cop who keeps harassing them,” Jessie Demmings, a manager at the 132-room Henry Hotel on Sixth Street, told the Guardian. “They try to take that one step to go forward and then when you come outside you get greeted by a fucking cop having a bad day.”

Even though new SFPD policies prohibit officers from using passkeys to enter people’s rooms without a warrant, Demmings said it still happens. “The reason why we give the passkey is because they always threaten we’re gonna kick in the door, we gonna have a batting ram come and bust the door in,” he said.

Adachi cited his office’s long history of cases in which “officers were barging into rooms without warrants and they were lying about it in police reports.”

Cases of police abuse are handled by the city’s Office of Citizen Complaints, but its work is shrouded in secrecy, thanks to the California Peace Officers Bill of Rights, and officers rarely face serious consequences for their actions.

“We do have complaints with regard to the conduct within the SROs and we have made policy recommendations to the chief,” OCC Director Joyce Hicks told reporters at the SFPD press conference. She called the indictments “extra serious because it implicates the Fourth Amendment and people’s rights.”

Adachi said that after revealing the videos in 2011, he persuaded Mayor Ed Lee to fund two positions in his office investigating police misconduct, but the Mayor’s Office defunded those positions after a year and ignored Adachi’s calls to restore them (as well as Bay Guardian calls for comment on the issue).

“We felt like the public needs to know about this,” Adachi said of the behavior revealed by the federal investigation. “What happened today is significant, and I think it will have deterrent effect.”

Sabrina Rubakovic and Brian McMahon contributed to this report.