District Attorney

Ammiano “angry” as Brown vetoes prosecutor misconduct bill


Assemblymember Tom Ammiano strongly criticized Gov. Jerry Brown today [Mon/29] for yesterday vetoing his Assembly 885, which would have provided modest sanctions for prosecutors who willfully withhold evidence during criminal trials, a huge problem we’ve repeatedly covered in the Bay Guardian.

From the case of JJ Tennison and Antoine Goff — who served long prison terms before being freed after a Guardian investigation showed misconduct by the police and prosecutors in San Francisco — to the similar and most recent case of Obie Anthony, as told by Ammiano to his legislative colleagues during the hearings, prosecutorial misconduct is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

AB 885 became a good compromise measure and it worked its way through the legislative process, in the end allowing judges to inform juries when a prosecutor has intentionally withheld evidence, an important factor when weighing credibility that is usually shielded from jurors.

But in his veto message, Brown wrote, “Prosecutorial misconduct should never be tolerated. This bill, however, would be a sharp departure from current practice that looks to the judiciary to decide how juries should be instructed. Under current law, judges have an array of remedies at their disposal if a discovery violation comes to light during trial.”

Yet the reality of the criminal justice system is that such remedies rarely get applied, particularly in cases where the defendant is a poor person of color, sometimes because judges (many of them appointed by Republican governors during shameful tough-on-crime eras) are biased in favor of police and prosecutors.

This is a problem that was ripe for a legislative remedy in country where racism and the world’s highest incarceration rates are still huge problems, and we share the frustration of Ammiano over this veto.

“I’m not just disappointed at the Governor’s veto of this bill, I’m angry,” Ammiano said in a press release. “We need so much more than this to balance the system and keep the innocent out of prison, as the writers of the Constitution intended. Most prosecutors are honorable, but we’ve seen too many cases where DA’s don’t play fair – hiding evidence or releasing it at the last minute.”

“I recently met 40-year-old Obie Anthony, who has spent nearly half his life in prison because prosecutors hid evidence that would have pointed to his innocence,” Ammiano continued. “A court has now completely exonerated him, but that exoneration has come 20 years too late. We need this bill to stop the few prosecutors whose zeal for convictions lead them to cut corners on justice. We can’t wait decades to free the innocent while the true perpetrators run free.”

Ammiano noted that while the courts have prohibited non-disclosure evidence, he said the remedies that Brown refers to are weak and rarely used. For example, in Anthony’s case, the prosecutorial misconduct resulted in just a 24-hour continuance and no disclosure to the jury.  

“AB 885 could have saved me from spending 17 years in state prison,” Anthony said shortly after it passed the Legislature.

Brown is right that, “Prosecutorial misconduct should never be tolerated,” but in today’s criminal justice system — where cops and prosecutors are regularly exposed for railroading low-income defendants — it is not just tolerated, it is commonplace. 

BART launches internal affairs investigation into tackling arrest of black man


The Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department has launched an internal affairs investigation after an officer tackled and subsequently arrested a suspect, the Bay Guardian has learned. The nature of the complaint leading into the investigation is not yet known, but statements from the suspect’s attorney indicate it may be racially motivated. 

The man, his attorney alleged previously, was potentially racially profiled. Last week, the San Francisco Examiner reported a man was tackled and arrested by BART police in Powell Station. This man did not match the description of the suspect police sought, his attorney said, except for one characteristic: he was black.

When the Guardian asked BART Deputy Police Chief Jeffrey Jennings if we could look at the police report, we were denied due to an internal affairs investigation into the case. The man in question asked the Examiner for anonymity due to fear of retaliation. 

“Understandably, he’s scared to take BART now,” Rachel Lederman, his attorney and the president of the Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild, told the Examiner.

Police were searching for a man dressed in black who accosted a woman in Powell Station earlier. But the man they tackled wore blue jeans and a grey jacket. After he was tackled to the ground, the man was charged only with resisting arrest, indicating officers concluded he was not the suspect they were looking for.

“The gentleman was charged with [Penal Code] 148, resisting/obstructing an officer while in the performance of their duty,” Jennings told the Guardian. “My detective unit filed the case with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and they chose not to prosecute him for this charge.”

But their reasons for suspecting the man they eventually tackled weren’t based on any part of his description, except his race, based on the information available. 

From Kate Conger’s SF Examiner story:

About 6:55 p.m. Sunday, BART police received a report that a female patron had been grabbed and hit by a male panhandler when she refused to give him money, BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said. The victim reportedly described the suspect as a black male who was wearing all-black clothing.

However, when officers arrived on the platform, they approached another black male who was wearing a light-gray jacket and jeans. BART police said the man tried to walk away when they approached him.

Officers subsequently hit the man, knocking him backward, then tackled him and took him into custody.

The victim, according to Trost, could not positively identify the man BART police detained, but he was arrested anyway.

We asked Jennings directly if the man was actually the person they were looking for, to which he replied, “There appeared to be enough information to talk to the person and that person turned the conversation into a lawful detention, and eventually he was arrested based on his actions.”

A brief Instagram video from a bystander of the arrest show the police tackling the man, who is wearing fitted blue jeans and a light grey jacket. “What the fuck is your problem man?” he shouts as he’s grappled and brought to the ground by an officer and a bystander. “I didn’t do shit! I didn’t do anything!” he continued, as another officer joins the fray to restrain him.

When the Guardian asked Lederman if the man would pursue a case against BART police, she did not get a definitive answer either way.

“I can’t comment on that now,” she wrote in an email, but “will have a comment on it in a couple months.”

BART internal affairs has 67 open investigations, which is 23 cases more than the same time last year, according to BART’s Office of the Independent Police Auditor. 

Waiting for answers



As word spread to San Francisco that police in Ferguson, Mo., were taking reporters into custody and firing tear gas at demonstrators outraged by the death of Mike Brown, a small group of writers and organizers with ties to the Mission District was gearing up to hold street demonstrations of its own.

On Aug. 21 and 22, they staged vigils and a march and rally in memory of a different shooting victim: Alejandro (“Alex”) Nieto, who died suddenly in Bernal Heights Park on March 21 after being struck by a volley of police bullets.

Despite palpable anger expressed during the events held to mark five months since Nieto’s death, it was a far cry from the angry demonstrations unleashed on the streets of Ferguson, where it was like something stretched too far and snapped.

People who knew Nieto gathered for a sunset vigil in Bernal Heights Park at the place where he was killed. They returned the following morning for a sunrise vigil, incorporating a spiritual element with Buddhist chanting. Hours later, in a march preceded by dancers who spun in the streets, donning long feathered headdresses and ankle rattles made out of hollowed tree nuts, they progressed from Bernal Hill to the San Francisco Federal Building.

Despite a visible police mobilization, the protests remained peaceful, with little interaction between officers and demonstrators. Instead, the focus remained on the contents of a civil rights complaint filed Aug. 22 by attorney John Burris, famous for his track record of representing victims of police violence.

Burris, who is representing Nieto’s parents, said he rejected the SFPD’s explanation of why officers were justified in discharging their weapons and killing Nieto. “What we will seek to do is to vindicate his interests, his good name, and to show through the evidence that the narrative put forth by the police was just flat-out wrong,” Burris said at the rally.

Nieto’s encounter with police arose because a 911 caller erroneously reported that he had a black handgun, leading police to enter the park in search of a gunman. In reality, Nieto possessed a Taser, not a firearm. On the night he was killed, he’d gone to the park to eat a burrito just before starting his shift as a part-time security guard at a nightclub, where all the guards carry Tasers. In addition to working at that job, Nieto, who was 28, had been studying administration of justice at City College of San Francisco in hopes of becoming a youth probation officer.

Days after the shooting, police said Nieto had pointed his Taser at officers when they approached. At a March 26 town hall meeting convened shortly after the incident, Police Chief Greg Suhr told attendees that Nieto had “tracked” officers with his Taser, emitting a red laser.

“When the officers asked him to show his hands, he drew the Taser from the holster. And these particular Tasers, as soon as they’re drawn, they emit a dot. A red dot,” Suhr said, adding that Nieto had verbally challenged officers when they asked him to drop his weapon. “When the officers saw the laser sight on them, tracking, they believed it to be a firearm, and they fired at Mr. Nieto.”

Yet attorney Adante Pointer, of Burris’s law office, told the Bay Guardian that a person claiming to be an eyewitness to the shooting has come forward with a different account. The witness, whose identity Pointer did not disclose, said he never saw Nieto draw his Taser and did not hear any verbal exchange prior to bullets being fired.

“To suggest that he’d engaged in the most ridiculous outrageous conduct, of pointing a … Taser at the police when they had guns drawn, is insulting,” Burris said at the rally.

The version of events included in the complaint, which Pointer said was based in part on witness accounts, differs greatly from the SFPD account.

“An SFPD patrol car entered the park and drove up a fire trail before stopping approximately 75 to 100 feet away from Mr. Nieto who at that time was casually walking down the jogging trail to the park’s entrance,” Burris’ complaint states. “Two officers emerged from the patrol car and immediately took cover using their car for protection. Several other officers had also gathered on the jogging path, appeared to be carrying rifle-type guns and were positioned behind Mr. Nieto. One of the officers behind the patrol car called out and ordered Mr. Nieto to ‘stop.’ Within seconds a quick volley of bullets were fired at Mr. Nieto. No additional orders or any other verbal communication was heard between the first officer yelling ‘stop’ and the initial volley of gunfire that rang out.”

SFPD spokesperson Albie Esparza told us the department was unable comment on the matter because “anytime there’s a lawsuit, we cease to speak to anybody about that.”

Adriana Camarena, an author and Mission District resident who helped organize the rally, decried the lack of transparency surrounding the Nieto case in comments delivered outside the Federal Building.

“For five months, city officials have kept sealed all records that could explain what happened on March 21 2014,” Camarena charged. “For five months, SFPD, the Police Commission, the District Attorney’s Office, the Medical Examiner’s Office, and the mayor have maintained in secrecy the names of the four officers who killed Alex Nieto, the original 911 calls, eyewitness reports, the number of bullets fired, and the autopsy report. For five months, the Nieto family has been kept in the dark about the facts that could ease some of their trauma about what happened the day that police killed their son.”

Mike Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson on Aug. 9. On Aug. 11, following angry demonstrations, police said they would release the name of the officer who shot Brown — but declined to do so Aug. 12, citing fears over the officer’s safety and threats communicated via social media. Yet on Aug. 15, Officer Darren Wilson was identified by officials as the person who shot Brown.

In San Francisco, the names of the four officers who shot Nieto have not been released. Esparza told the Guardian that this was because “there’s specified credible threats against the officers’ lives,” citing a Supreme Court ruling determining that law enforcement agencies can withhold this information under such circumstances.

In addition to the federal civil complaint, friends and supporters of Nieto delivered a petition with almost 1,000 signatures to the U.S. Department of Justice, calling for a federal investigation into the shooting.

Multiple investigations are underway at the local level, but have been stalled due to one missing piece: an autopsy report to be issued by the San Francisco Medical Examiner. Despite the delay in releasing the formal autopsy results, “We did see the body and we did take photographs of it,” Burris noted, referring to his office’s review of the body after it was released to Nieto’s family for burial. Based on that review, Burris said attorneys determined that Nieto had been shot by police more than 10 times.

We placed multiple phone calls to the offices of the Medical Examiner and the District Attorney seeking details about the status of the investigation and to ask about the delay, but received no response.

However Bill Barnes, a spokesperson for the City Administrator’s Office, which the Medical Examiner’s Office reports to, told us the timing of the report is consistent with that of other complex homicide investigations. Barnes added that the Medical Examiner’s Office is waiting on the results of a second toxicology report. The initial results were inconclusive, he said, so another round of testing was initiated.

But that explanation does little to quell the anger of activists who say the SFPD is merely seeking to cover up an unjustified shooting. Pointer said he could see no reason for information being withheld for five months.

“There’s no reason as to why the information that this family deserves as to how their son — our brother, our friend, our leader, our organizer — met his death,” he said at the rally. “There’s just no reason why that story hasn’t been told. If you, the police department, had been justified, why not be transparent? Why not open up your files and let us inspect it so that we can see that what you’re saying is the truth?”

More time, same crime



Roll up a dollar bill, snort a line of coke, sit back and smile: If your cocaine use leads to a conviction, your drug of choice will be spared from the harsher penalties associated with inhaling the substance through a glass pipe. When it comes to busts for cocaine possession and dealing, those caught with a rock instead of the powdered stuff are kept behind bars longer. But that could soon change.

The drug is the same, the punishment is not — and a new bill may soon end that decades-long disparity, one that critics have called racist. But crack cocaine use is now at a historic low in San Francisco, raising a question: What took so long?

The California Assembly voted 50-19 Friday [8/16] to pass the Fair Sentencing Act, which aims to lower the sentence for possession with intent to sell crack cocaine to be on par with that of powder cocaine.

The bill, authored by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), is seen as championing racial justice.

“The Fair Sentencing Act will take a brick out of the wall of the failed 1980s drug-war era laws that have devastated communities of color, especially black and Latino men,” Lynne Lyman of the Drug Policy Alliance said in a prepared statement.

Crack cocaine rocks have tended to be more heavily used by African Americans, while powdered cocaine tends to be the province of rich white folks. The bill would lessen the maximum sentence for crack cocaine possession with intent to sell to four years, down from five. It would still constitute a felony.

In California, having a drug-related felony on record can prevent the formerly incarcerated from accessing housing assistance and food stamps, further feeding a cycle of poverty. The Fair Sentencing Act now awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s pen. But some say this disparity should have been addressed some 30 years ago.

The 1980s gave rise to the “crack epidemic” narrative, a supposedly sweeping addiction promulgated by media reports on crack’s outsized harm to pregnant women and newborn babies. But those health impacts are now understood to be on par with tobacco use during pregnancy, rather than the terrifying danger it was presented to be.

Still, the images and narratives from that era were powerful.

In a television news report that aired in the 1980s, an unnaturally tiny baby quivers and shakes on the screen. Then-First Lady Nancy Reagan appears and hammers the point home: “Drugs take away the dream from every child’s heart, and replace it with a nightmare.” Flash forward to the future, and university researchers have produced studies showing that the babies born to crack-using mothers that so frightened the country were simply prematurely born, and went on to lead healthy lives.

True or not, people were outraged. The change in laws happened “virtually overnight,” Public Defender Jeff Adachi told us. Crack cocaine hit San Francisco hard.

Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, remembers it well. He had just come out of homelessness in the Tenderloin in the ’80s. Just prior to starting as a staffer at Hospitality House, he saw the worst of it.

“People were killing each other over the stupidest shit. It got really violent,” he said. “What crack cocaine did is it divided a community against itself. I never thought I’d get to a point where I missed heroin.”

But, he added, “I do think the advent of crack and the assumption that every black male was doing crack gave the cops carte blanche for all of their racist patterns.”

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, people of color accounted for over 98 percent of men sent to California prisons for possession of crack cocaine for sale. Two-thirds were black, and the rest were Latino.

Long since the days when cops regularly raided the Tenderloin on a hunt for every glass crack pipe, the SFPD is now a somewhat more lenient beast in the drug realm. Drug arrests in the city dropped by 85 percent in the last five years, according to California Department of Justice data. Police Chief Greg Suhr downsized his narcotics unit, shifting to focus on violent crime.

“People that sell drugs belong in jail because they’re preying upon sick people,” Suhr told the Guardian, although he added, “People with a drug problem need to be treated, as it’s a public health issue.”

Suhr said he supports the lower sentencing for crack cocaine to make it on par with powder.

“Cocaine,” he said, “is cocaine.”

District Attorney George Gascon’s office also prosecutes mostly violent and property crimes as opposed to drug possession, reflecting a rare show of agreement between the Public Defender’s Office, the SFPD, and the DA. San Franciscans battling drug problems are often diverted to drug courts and rehabilitation programs.

Crack cocaine has largely moved on from San Francisco, leaving its ugly legacy. Meanwhile, heroin use is on the rise, but nevertheless carries the same harsh sentence as crack cocaine for possession with intent to sell.

“It’s the pathetic state of politics today that it took this long for this to happen,” Boden told us, on sentencing reform. “Now it won’t cost me anything, I’ll show what a great liberal I am.”


Ruling provides more access to SFPD misconduct files


A California appellate court issued a ruling this week [Mon/11] opening up San Francisco Police Department personnel files to prosecutors, who then must disclose to defense attorneys when officers have criminal or other misconduct issues that may affect their credibility when testifying during trials.  

The decision builds on the 1963 Brady v. Maryland US Supreme Court case, which requires police to share all potentially significant evidence with the prosecutors. But the SFPD hasn’t always done so to an extent that passed legal muster, citing officer confidentiality issues, so the court has now found that prosecutors must have direct access and bear the responsibility of disclosure.  

The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office resisted the change, joining with the SFPD to appeal the lower court ruling in Superior Court of San Francisco vs. Daryl Lee Johnson, a defendant whose attorney has sought more information about the officers testifying against him. The appellate court supported the earlier ruling and said that any relevant documents must be shared.

The appellate justices specified that, since the police are part of the prosecution, documents may legally be shared without breaking any officer confidentiality rules. SFPD did not immediately return calls for comment, but we’ll update this post if and when we hear back.

In a press release from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, Public Defender Jeff Adachi said, “A fair trial requires that before a police officer testifies, any history of dishonest or abusive behavior is turned over to the defense…[The prosecutors] are ultimately responsible for providing any information about a police officer that could exonerate an innocent person.”

The Guardian spoke to Adachi about the implications of this decision. While the ruling will place fewer obstacles in the way of obtaining evidence and will create a clearer process, Adachi is concerned about accountability since there’s no way to know that the prosecutors are making all relevant documents available. But he said the ruling is still a step in the right direction.

“This decision means that the defense will have access to information to a case where police officers’ credibility is concerned,” Adachi said. “If the officer has been disciplined for lying [or] use of excessive force…that reflects on the police officer’s credibility.”

According to Acachi, around 100 cases have been dismissed due to lack of evidence, and 90 officers involved in various cases had flawed records.

Monday’s ruling will play a role in the case that inspired it. Daryl Lee Johnson was charged with two felonies in November 2012. His investigating officers had records of misconduct, but their files were not available to Johnson’s attorney. This ruling will even out the playing field and help ensure that Johnson trial and others are truly fair.

Adachi told the Guardian that two court decisions were preventing defense attorneys from accessing misconduct files.

“The Johnson case establishes that yes, they can,” Adachi said, noting that the ruling will also help defense attorneys in other cases going forward.

Alternative event to National Night Out shifts focus away from surveillance

Aug. 5 marks National Night Out, an annual event promoted by local governments and law enforcement agencies geared toward ending neighborhood violence and promoting public safety.

In San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee is scheduled to join Police Chief Greg Suhr and District Attorney George Gascon at a Visitacion Valley playground for a National Night Out gathering. A host of other neighborhood block parties are scheduled throughout San Francisco and Oakland as well.

National Night Out gatherings, which are sponsored by the National Association of Neighborhood Watch, are scheduled to take place nationwide. Block party attendees are encouraged to come out and meet their neighbors as a way of banding together against crime. Yet some have questioned the heavy emphasis this event places on suspicion and surveillance as tools for promoting neighborhood safety.

To offer a different perspective, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights has organized a community gathering Aug. 5 at the Lake Merritt amphitheater, billed as the Second Annual Night Out for Safety and Democracy.

“We still want to have a celebration of the community – but we really want to reframe the message that it’s not all about setting up a neighborhood watch program,” said Maria Dominguez, a community organizer with the Ella Baker Center. She added that a mass effort to encourage suspicion and neighborhood surveillance can lead to unintended consequences, such as actions that are unnecessarily based in fear, or racial profiling.

Instead, the Ella Baker Center hopes to emphasize restorative justice practices, youth job training programs, and reentry services as tools for promoting community safety. The group is also highlighting the need for more resources to be dedicated toward these programs as state funding becomes available.

“Safety really goes hand in hand with the lack of economic opportunity in our communities,” Dominguez said. This coming fall, she noted, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors will begin discussing allocation of some $30 million in state realignment funding. Historically, only about a fourth of this has gone toward community-based organizations focused on efforts such as reentry services, with the rest being devoted mainly to law enforcement agencies.

“We want to make sure there’s more funding allocated for community based organizations providing restorative justice initiatives, and other organizations that focus on employment and workforce development opportunities,” Dominguez said.

“With the recent rise in local surveillance initiatives and private patrols, it’s more important than ever to encourage neighbors to build connections with one another so that they can see each other,” said Ella Baker Center executive director Zachary Norris, “rather than watch each other.”

The evening’s event will feature talks by practitioners in restorative justice practitioners and representatives from organizations working around reentry programs. There will also be food, art, voter information, and a performance by Turf Feinz. They’re turf dance performers whose moves – consisting of “elaborate footwork, gliding, gigging, contortion and acrobat,” according to the event description – have been known to liven up BART commutes. 

“Rain,” Turf Feinz’ video from 2009 created in memory of a friend, got more than six million YouTube hits.

San Franciscans could make death penalty ruling stick


In the wake of yesterday’s [Wed/16] judicial ruling that California’s death penalty system is unconstitutional — with federal District Judge Cormac Carney calling it arbitrary and so subject to endless delay that it “serves no penological purpose” — San Franciscans could play a key role in converting the ruling into an abolition of capital punishment.

Right now, the ruling applies only to the execution of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was sentenced to death in 1995 for a rape and murder, and not all 748 inmates now on Death Row in California. But yesterday’s ruling would end the death penalty in California if appealed to and upheld by the SF-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The decision about whether to file that appeal and possibly a subsequent appeal to the US Supreme Court falls to Attorney General Kamala Harris, who has maintained her opposition to capital punishment since her days as San Francisco’s district attorney, where she bravely endured lots of political heat for refusing to file capital murder charges in the death of San Francisco Police Officer Isaac Espinoza.  

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi today issued a public statement praising yesterday’s ruling and calling for Harris not to appeal it: “Today’s ruling, which found California’s death penalty unconstitutional, is a monumental victory for justice. I commend U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney for his courage and wisdom. Not only is the death penalty arbitrarily imposed, as the judge noted, its history is fraught with racial bias and haunted by the hundreds of death row inmates who were later exonerated. I am hopeful that California Attorney General Kamala Harris will choose not to appeal this decision.” 

Harris spokesperson David Beltran told the Guardian that she hasn’t yet made a decision whether to appeal the case: “We are reviewing the ruling.”

Yet former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who worked with SF-based Death Penalty Focus on the 2012 initiative campaign to repeal the death penalty (losing by less than 4 percentage points), told the Guardian that Harris has a tough choice to make.

“It’s an interesting decision. If the Attorney General doesn’t appeal it, then it applies just to this case, period,” Garcetti told us.

Although appeals in other cases could cite the logic of yesterday’s ruling, it has no precedent value unless affirmed by the Ninth Circuit. And Garcetti called Carney’s ruling “a pretty persuasive decision” that could be easily be affirmed, depending on which judges are assigned to the case. If so, that ruling would end the death penalty in California, just as 17 other states have already done.   

“The more interesting question is whether she would then appeal that ruling [to the US Supreme Court],” Garcetti said.

California voters have affirmed their support for the death penalty three times at the ballot, but those results and public opinion polling show that support for executions has been steadily eroding, in much the same way that generational change has led to overturning bans on same-sex marriage across the country.

Garcetti said he regularly speaks publicly about capital punishment, often to very conservative groups, and he said that the arguments against it have become so strong — including its high cost, racial and class bias, and lack of deterrent effect — that “over 95 percent of [death penalty supporters] change their opinions by the end of my talks.”

As for why the 2012 initiative fell about 250,000 votes short of success, Garcetti said, “We simply ran out of money to get the facts out. Once people hear the facts, it wins them over.”

Carney’s ruling reinforced many of the arguments that opponents have been made against the death penalty, noting that federal guarantees of due process create such long delays that a death sentence has become something “no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”

Aside from this ruling, California is also currently under a federal moratorium on executing prisoners until it can reform its lethal injection procedures, which a federal judge has said now amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

“Justice requires that we end this charade once and for all,” Death Penalty Focus Executive Director Matt Cherry said in a prepared statement. “It’s time to replace California’s broken death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. That’s the best way to ensure that convicted killers remain behind bars until they die, without wasting tens of millions of tax dollars every year on needless appeals. That’s justice that works, for everyone.”

Moving pictures



FILM As one of the Bay Area’s largest film festivals prepares for its opening (that’d be the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which runs July 24-Aug. 10), this weekend heralds several smaller fests with unique approaches to programming, including the San Francisco Frozen Film Festival at the Roxie, and Oakland’s outdoor Brainwash Drive-In/Bike-In/Walk-In Movie Festival. Also in Oakland: the second annual Matatu Film Festival, which takes its name from colorfully decorated mini-buses found in Kenya and other East African countries.

The reference suggests a focus on films from that region of the world. But while it is an international festival, it’s more interested in “matatu” as metaphor, presenting films as a way to transport the viewer to new places or points of view. Amid an overall strong program, one of the most timely entries is Mala Mala, a gritty yet joyful exploration of Puerto Rico’s trans community that makes great use of neon-lit streetscapes, a retro-synth score, and the oversized personalities of its subjects. Among them are drag queens, including recent RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant April Carrión, and transgender activists like Ivana Fred, who cuts a striking figure whether she’s raising awareness on TV talk shows, handing out condoms to sex workers, patiently enduring the opinions of a homophobic priest, or modeling her carefully sculpted assets (“I was born in Puerto Rico, but I was made in Ecuador,” she jokes).

The less-glamorous figures are also compelling, including prostitute Sandy, who’s refreshingly candid about all aspects of her life, and Paxx, the sole transman interviewed, who faces what he sees as a “harder transition than trans girls,” since his hormone therapy is far less accessible, and his social support system is far more limited. With trans issues in the spotlight more than ever — see: TV actress Laverne Cox’s Time magazine cover and Emmy nomination — Mala Mala directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles do an admirable job showing how diverse the community is, and how complex each individual’s struggles and triumphs can be. Speaking of triumphs, once the dance moves of future drag superstar Queen Bee Ho command the screen, it’s pretty clear who should star in the filmmakers’ next project — or at least season seven of Drag Race.

Elsewhere among Matatu’s docs is Evolution of a Criminal, Darius Clark Moore’s deeply personal film about his detour from standout Houston, Texas, high school student to bank robber, and from prisoner back to school — this time, at NYU’s esteemed film school. Criminal benefits from the sheen of executive producer Spike Lee, but Moore’s story would be gripping even with less polished production. He frames the film as a series of interviews with family members — mom, step dad, grandma, assorted aunts and uncles, etc. — and others (former teachers, the district attorney who prosecuted him) who reflect on the family history and financial circumstances that nudged Moore down the wrong path.

He was a bright kid from a close-knit, hardworking family that couldn’t seem to dig its way out of debt. One night, he was watching America’s Most Wanted and got the bright idea to plan a crime so flawless there’d be no way he’d get caught. He and his fellow teenage accomplices even had the perfect alibi: They’d show up at school, fake illness so they could slip out for the heist, do the deed, and then return to class several thousand dollars richer.

It did work — we watch the crime unfold in re-enactments far more tasteful than anything ever seen on America’s Most Wanted — until it went sideways, as recounted in interviews with Moore’s now-grown, now-regretful friends, and Moore himself, who brims with genuine emotion and yearns for closure, even going so far as to track down, and apologize to, bank workers and patrons who witnessed the robbery. After awhile, this feels like we’re witnessing a 12-step program in progress, but one of the men, a born-again pastor, is an effective mouthpiece for Criminal‘s themes of forgiveness. On the other hand, the DA is far more skeptical, wishing Moore well with his film career, but suggesting she won’t believe he’s really turned a corner until his prison stint is more than 10 years in the past.

Also among Matatu’s doc fare is Evaporating Borders, Iva Radivojevic’s poetic take on the current immigration crisis in Cyprus, an island ruled by both Turkey and Greece (with an “open wound” of a border between). “Its story is multi-layered and complex,” the filmmaker explains in voice-over. “It’s sordid and manipulated.” She has personal insight — she immigrated there herself during the war in her home country, the former Yugoslavia — but also offers of-the-moment perspective via firsthand accounts from recent arrivals. Many arrive fleeing war, as Radivojevic did, though now most come from Iraq, a situation that inflames the island’s considerable anti-Muslim bias. (The filmmaker interviews one Cypriot politician whose anti-immigration rhetoric sounds awfully Tea Party, a reminder that sweeping intolerance isn’t a uniquely American trait after all.)

Other Matatu docs include Virunga, about park rangers fighting to protect the dwindling population of mountain gorillas in Congo’s Virunga National Park; 12 O’Clock Boys, about a scrappy pack of young Baltimore dirt-bike riders (it had a Roxie run earlier this year, though here it’s paired with dreamy sci-fi short Afronauts as an added incentive); and Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace, which follows the famed NYC-based painter as he shifts his focus from male to female subjects for the first time.

Clocking in at under 40 minutes, Kehinde Wiley is paired with a film of similar running time, if not subject matter: Unogumbe, a refashioning of the Benjamin Britten opera Noye’s Fludde. Set in South Africa, sung in Xhosa, and orchestrated with African instruments, it also recasts the Noah character as a woman (the wonderful Paulina Malefane) who gets a heads-up from the guy upstairs that she needs to gather her family and build an ark, pronto. The other two narrative films in the festival are Of Good Report, a contemporary film noir that also hails from South Africa, and the African folklore-inspired Oya: Rise of the Orisha.

But the best companion piece for Unogumbe is Matatu’s opening-night film, The Great Flood, which pairs archival footage shot during and after the devastating 1927 Mississippi River flood (curated by filmmaker-multimedia artist Bill Morrison) with a jazzy, bluesy score (by guitarist-composer Bill Frisell). It’s a memorable, haunting collection of images: slow pans across small towns with just rooftops visible; residents paddling whatever few belongings they’ve salvaged to higher ground; a makeshift tent city for the displaced, with an open-air piano providing much-needed entertainment; and starched politicians, including future POTUS Herbert Hoover, surveying the damage while skirting the mud as much as possible. *


Wed/16-Sat/19, $12

Most screenings at Flight Deck

1540 Broadway, Oakl



Protest against “Prison of Love” Armory party leads to arrests


At least six people were arrested and taken into custody shortly before midnight on Saturday at the 16th Street Mission BART Plaza following a raucous protest of Kink.com’s pre-Pride party, according to San Francisco Police Department spokesman Albie Esparza.

The protest, put on by LGBTQ activist group Gay Shame, totaled around 150 people who were unhappy with the theme of the Kink.com party, “Prison of Love.” They allege that the company used sexual assault in prisons as a means of revenue, saying it has “turned these genocidal practices into a cash-making joke.” (Tickets to the party were as much as $175.)

Though a statement from Gay Shame said the protesters were arrested “without provocation,” Esparza told us they stemmed from alleged assaults on the security guards at the party by protesters. According to an account of the protest compiled by Armory facilities manager Andrew Harvill and provided by Kink.com CEO and Armory owner Peter Acworth, “protesters were largely peaceful, though unruly. Having said that, at least a dozen were highly militant.” 

Witnesses recalled seeing a Kink.com security guard follow protesters to 16th Street roughly 30 minutes after the protest ended and begin “targeting people who were casually standing on the sidewalk getting ready to go home.” According to the witnesses, “the arrests and police violence were reportedly in retaliation for the night’s protest.”

Esparza confirmed that a security guard followed the protesters down to the plaza, though for the purpose of identifying the offenders when the police arrived. One protester reportedly threw a metal object and made threats toward a security guard during the protest, both of which are being charged as felonies, while another allegedly through an egg and spit on a security guard. When the police attempted to arrest the protester for the alleged felonies, Esparza said two other protesters tried to intervene. They were arrested and charged with lynching—a violation of Penal Code 405a, defined as “the taking by means of a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer.”

Two other protesters were cited for interfering with an officer and resisting arrest, and released, according to Esparza. The protesters who allegedly threw the egg was cited for battery and released, he said. But those involved in the protest see it a bit differently.

“A friend of mine was standing with a bicycle and they arrested her seemingly at random,” said protester Erin McElroy, who was at the BART station and said the police were simply searching for someone with a bike, which led to her friend’s arrest. Similarly, another person was arrested because the police “were looking for an Asian woman with short hair,” according to McElroy, and the woman was “identified as somebody who had been with a provocateur.”

Those arrested and facing felony charges are Prisca Carpenter, Sarai Robles-Mendez, and Rebecca Ruiz-Lichter, although District Attorney George Gascón is unlikely to pursue the lynching charges, according to Rachel Lederman, president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

“I can pretty much guarantee that the DA will not be proceeding on those charges. It is the DA who makes the charging decision…[the protesters are] being subjected to preemptive punishment right now,” Lederman wrote in an email.

Video of the Prison of Love pride party provided by Kink.com.

Harvill’s account of the events stated that protesters “used a slingshot to propel objects at security,” and punched and spat in the face of the Armory’s manager of security. The Armory guards reportedly did not retaliate or detain anyone, though they had to “block/deny intrusion onto property a few times.”

In his account, Harvill also wrote, “There was a decent contingent of protesters who were militant and provoking. Our own security was extremely professional in face of numerous provoking acts and assaults. Any claims of police brutality would be highly unlikely, but I will confirm exact details of those arrested.”

Those involved with the protest were unsurprisingly dismayed by the night’s proceedings, including members of Gay Shame.

“Like the Stonewall rebellion 45 years ago, last night’s attack reminds us how trans and queer people of color are criminalized and arrested for simply gathering in public space, like the 16th Street BART plaza,” said Gay Shame representative Mary Lou Ratchet in a statement.

Attorney John Viola, sent as an observer from the National Lawyers Guild, was also arrested, according to Lederman. The NLG is “appalled by all of the arrests…particularly that three people have been held in jail since Saturday night on groundless charges, in violation of their constitutional rights,” wrote Lederman in her email.

Four arrestees have since been released, including Viola, and all were initially medically cleared, indicating that they likely did not sustain injuries. Nevertheless, Lederman said the NLG is still working to get the three women released, with their bail currently set at a combined $178,000, Chief Deputy Kathy Gorwood told the Guardian. (Carpenter’s bail is set at $78,000, while Robles-Mendez and Ruiz-Lichter are each at $50,000.)

Acworth expressed his thoughts about his party in an open letter, stating he believes that “if a group wants to organize a particular kind of party, they should be free to do so without shame,” though conceding that “the extent to which some groups find this theme offensive because the party is happening during the San Francisco Pride weekend has given me cause to reflect.”

The Kink.com CEO has also voiced his support for the protesters’ contention, writing in an email, “I attempted to negotiate directly with the crowd, but this proved unsuccessful. This was frustrating, because I agree with the underlying issue that we are in need of prison reform,” adding, “Had it been possible to change the theme, we would have done so.”

Is the SF District Attorney’s Office biased against cyclists?


There’s been much discussion over the last year about whether police and prosecutors in San Francisco are biased against bicyclists. And while the San Francisco Police Department has admitted problems in their investigations of collisions that injure cyclists and pledged to do better (with mixed results), the District Attorney’s Office doesn’t seem have gotten the message.

The cyclist community was appalled last month when District Attorney George Gascon refused to follow SFPD recommendations and file criminal charges against the commercial truck driver who killed cyclist Amelie Le Moullac in August, a high-profile case that highlighted SFPD bias and triggered a series of hearings on the issue at City Hall.

Now, a San Francisco jury has voted overwhelmingly to acquit a cyclist who collided with a pedestrian last year, finding that the collision was clearly accidental and that the cyclist tried to avoid the victim who jaywalked to check the parking meter for her car and then abrupted reversed course and collided with the cyclist.

“The evidence in this case was clear: It was an accident, not a crime,” Deputy Public Defender Tammy Zhu said of her client, 20-year-old John Kewin, who faced up to a year in jail after the DA’s office charged him with reckless driving.

But the jury last week voted 11-1 to acquit Kewin, siding with witnesses who said he tried to avoid the collision over one witness (ironically, a cyclist) who testified that Kewin was riding too fast. So the DA’s office this week decided to drop the charges.

Public Defender’s Office spokesperson Tamara Barak Aparton told us charges should have never been filed in the case: “I don’t think it should have been, it was clearly an accident and not a crime.”

The DA’s Office has refused to file criminal charges against any of the four motorists who killed cyclists in San Francisco in the last year, even in cases where the drivers were making illegal turns across bike lanes and making no efforts to avoid the cyclists.

Does the District Attorney’s Office have a bias against bicyclists? We left messages with two different spokespeople from that office, and we’ll update this post with their replies if and when we hear back. 

San Franciscans join international Ride of Silence to honor fallen cyclists


Nearly 100 San Francisco bicyclists joined thousands of pedal-powered citizens from more than 300 cities around the world yesterday [Wed/21] evening for the Ride of Silence, honoring cyclists killed by motorists by riding to the collision spots to leave flowers and signs noting their deaths.

The event started in Dallas in 2003 and it has grown into a global phenomenon in an age when global warming, air pollution, and a mounting death toll have done little to change the dynamics on city streets, where bad design, impatient attitudes, and biased law enforcment continue to give a pass to dangerous, automobile-centered conditions.

San Francisco’s ride came at a particularly poignant moment following a year when a modern record-tying four cyclists were killed by drivers in San Francisco last year: Dylan Mitchell, Diana Sullivan, Cheng Jin Lai, and Amelie Le Moullac. None of their killers faced criminal charges, with the District Attorney’s Office deciding just last week not to charge the delivery truck driver who ran over 24-year-old Le Moullac, despite high-profile attention on the case and a recommendation of criminal charges by the San Francisco Police Department.

Local Ride of Silence organizers Devon Warner and Robin Wheelwright called for greater public awareness of cyclists on the roadways and for drivers to slow down and drive carefully — particularly the commercial vehicle drivers who are responsible for 66 percent of the 34 cyclist fatalities in San Francisco since 2007.

“These are precious humans who are no longer with us, and we want to advocate for change,” Wheelwright said during a pre-ride presentation in the basement at Sports Basement.  

Also speaking at the event was Karen Allen, the mother of Derek Allen, a 22-year-old San Franciscan who was run over and killed by a Muni bus on Oct. 7, 2010. “I’m so honored to be here tonight. I’m honored by the people who put this together,” Allen said.

Escorted by a phalanx of 15 SFPD motorcycle cops, who Wheelwright told us had been tasked for the occasion by an officer who supports cyclists and had heard about the event, the mass of cyclists rode through SoMa, the Mission District, and the mid-Market area to make more than a half-dozen stops honoring fallen cyclists, including some where memorial bicycles or other signage already marked what had happened there. 

Memorial concert follows DA’s decision not to charge driver who killed cyclist


In the wake of yesterday’s decision by the District Attorney’s Office not to bring criminal charges against the driver who killed 24-year-old Amélie Le Moullac as she cycled in the Folsom Street bike lanes on her way to work last August, her family will be holding a benefit concert this Friday (May 16) for Amélie’s Angels, a charity created in her name to benefit needy schoolchildren in Haiti.

The concert by Amelie’s mother, organist Jessie Jewitt, and other Bay Area musicians starts at 7:30pm in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, featuring the Palo Alto Philharmonic and Conducter Geoffrey Pope. Amélie’s friend and co-worker Steve Lynch, who told us the event will be both a memorial and a fundraiser, said he was disappointed by the DA’s office decision not to bring charges in the case.

“I personally find this to be very upsetting, particularly given the way her investigation was handled, but the main reason I wanted to write you was to see if you would be interested in mentioning the benefit concert. It’s something that we’re trying to do to get her family some closure,” Lynch told us.

As KQED reported yesterday, the DA’s Office decided there was insufficicient evidence to bring an involuntary manslaughter charge against delivery truck driver Gilberto Alcantar, who turned right at Sixth Street across Le Moullac’s path, killing her. The San Francisco Police Department had recommended criminal charges after initially conducting only a cursory investigation, an insult that was compounded by Sgt. Richard Ernst showing up and making insensitive, victim-blaming comments at a memorial event by cyclists at the scene of Le Moullac’s death. Afterward, bike activists asked nearby businesses if they has surveillance video of the accident, finding video that police had neglected to seek that led investigators to conclude that Alcantar didn’t have the right-of-way when he ran over Le Moullac.

The Board of Supervisors held hearings on how the SFPD conducts such investigations, and Police Chief Greg Suhr later apologized for Ernst’s comments and the faulty investigation and pledged to conduct more thorough investigations when motorists kill cyclists, including looking at the three other similar fatalities last year. Alcantar was never even given a traffic citation in the deadly accident, but Le Moullac’s family has filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Alcantar and the company he was driving for at the time, Daylight Foods.

Since the accident, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has created new bike lanes and other markings on Folsom Street to more clearly delineate how bikes and cars should merge as they approach intersections so as to avoid the illegal “right hook” turns that are so dangerous to cyclists.

In a public statement announcing Amélie’s Angels and the benefit concert, Jewitt said, “Many people have asked me whether I was going to set up some type of fund or activity to improve the safety of SF streets for bicyclists. Although great improvements need to be made in this area, I leave it to advocates such as the Bicycle Coalition and other concerned individuals to petition for these changes. Amélie was not a cyclist. She was simply a young woman who thought that cycling to work would help the environment and would be a good form of exercise. In the days following her death, I felt her love so intensely, I knew I had to channel it into some activity that would directly enhance the lives of others.”

Will San Francisco Game of Thrones oust police commissioner?


Police Commissioner Angela Chan did not pay fealty to the proper lords and houses, sources say, and in a true to life Game of Thrones, she may now lose her office. The throne in question is a seat on the Police Commission, which Chan may be reappointed to by the Board of Supervisors today [Tues/29], but her chances don’t look good. 

In a political tussle reminiscent of House Lannister’s schemes against House Stark, political machines far larger than the idealistic Chan are churning to keep her from regaining her political office. The forces of Chinatown community leader Rose Pak and her fellow power brokers are backing potential replacement police commissioner Victor Hwang, whose sudden candidacy took many off guard. 

As first reported by Tim Redmond of 48hills.org, Pak’s political pushers dialed every supervisor and marshalled their armies, hellbent on unseating Chan. 

They may win, but not because Chan was a bad commissioner. Actually, the problem might be that she was too effective, and now people in power want her out.

Expanding the mayor’s power

In a Rules Committee meeting Apr. 17, backers of both candidates wore their house sigils, green or white buttons meant to support their chosen candidate, both of whom are seemingly very qualified.

On the one side, Hwang is an ex-assistant district attorney, ex-public defender, ex-nonprofit attorney, and advocate with over 20 years of experience holding police to task for their wrongdoing. He’s fought human trafficking and litigated against out-of-control cops. 

But the incumbent, Chan, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, has many similar qualifications. She also has a proven track record on the Police Commission: she crafted the Crisis Intervention Team, tasked with de-escalating standoffs with mentally ill offenders; advocated language access in the police force; helped to revise rules protecting children at school facing arrest; and opposed arming police with tasers.

Both candidates have an extensive list of backers. District Attorney staffers, the Anti-Defamation League, advocates from the Chinatown Development Center, and Randy Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic all wrote to supervisors backing Hwang. The Guardian even named him a “local hero” in our Best of the Bay issue in 2004.

But the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco Women’s Political Committee, members of the Central Americans Resource Center, Board of Education President Sandra Fewer, the local NAACP, and even a retired police officer all backed Chan. The Guardian also named her a local hero, in 2010. 

A change.org petition calling for her reappointment to the commission has 255 signatures, as of this writing. 

Chan hasn’t yet given up the ghost.

“I’m hoping the full board will recognize I work extremely hard,” she told the Guardian. “I look after the community, especially those who are most marginalized.”

Though many issues have political bents and political sides, one aspect of this tussle reveals the power play behind the curtain: the two candidates are competing for one empty seat on the commission, when there are actually two seats vacant.

Why fight over just one seat? 

The answer lies in political motivations insiders would only outline for reporters on background. You see, in a city where many commissions (see: SFMTA) are fully appointed by the Mayor’s Office, and therefore beholden to his whims, the Police Commission has a mechanism to dilute that power — a minority of seats are appointed by the Board of Supervisors. The seat Chan and Hwang are fighting for is the supervisor appointed seat, and for now the mayor’s seat sits empty and uncontested.

Hwang was co-chair of Progress for All, which ran the Run, Ed, Run campaign for Lee’s mayoral candidacy. If the question was really just about making Hwang a commissioner, the mayor could appoint him today with a snap of his fingers. But that’s not the point.

Many insiders, including ones that seemingly support Hwang, told the Guardian that Mayor Ed Lee has plenty of reason to usher Chan out and appoint Hwang in her place. The SFPD long pushed for tasers but found a formidable opponent in Chan, and the mayor would benefit from police support next election, they said. Others said her combative style ruffled people’s feathers, a seemingly legitimate complaint until you consider more cooperative boards like the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency define “cooperative” by mostly voting in unison and with little discussion, coincidentally also often in agreement with the mayor’s positions.

Angela Chan asks an SFPD station captain if officers use verbal means to de-escalate situations. 

That’s why Chan is dangerous; she’s a freethinker, and a loud one at that. By pushing the supervisors to appoint Hwang, we were told, the mayor would unseat a potential political liability, and net a freebie commission seat appointment in the deal. 


This isn’t to say Hwang is a bad guy. He longs for public service (nicknaming his practice the Ronin Law Firm), and expressed disappointment in political power struggles beyond his control.

“For me it’s not about Angela, it’s about the police commission,” he told the Guardian. “To give Angela credit, I think the work she’s done on Crisis Intervention Team and language access are important issues.”

And for his part, he said that though many political entities aligned with political powerbroker Rose Pak are pushing for his appointment, he wouldn’t be beholden to her, or them.

“Are Chinatown issues important to me? Yes, they’re very important to me,” he said. “Am I going to answer to one or two folks just because of whoever they are? No. That would be putting my own 20 years of work aside to kowtow to one particular person over anyone else.”

Hwang told us Supervisor Eric Mar is asking the mayor to appoint him to the second vacant police commission seat, but if that effort isn’t successful Chan and Hwang will go head to head.

So the supervisors have a tough choice ahead of them, but for some, the decision is tougher than others.

Conflict of interest

Some of the supervisors have votes that are fair to guess at. Long time progressives like Sups. Mar, John Avalos, and David Campos are ideologically aligned with Chan, and have reason to vote in her favor. 

Chan needs six votes to be re-appointed to the commission, and some of those votes are up in the air.

Sups. Norman Yee, and Katy Tang voted to approve Chan in the Rules Committee, the first round before today’s Board of Supervisors vote. But that’s no guarantee they’ll vote for her again. 

Sup. Jane Kim has an odd conflict of interest. Ivy Lee, an attorney and one of Kim’s staffers, is Hwang’s romantic partner. The couple has three children together. He dedicated a brief he wrote for the Asian American Law Journal, “to my incredible partner Ivy Lee, who gave birth to our second son Kaiden, as I was writing the brief at the hospital.”

Is that conflict of interest grounds for Kim to recuse herself from the vote? Is it proper for her to vote to appoint her staffer’s partner to a political position? We reached out to Kim’s office but did not hear back from her before going to press. 

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu’s vote is also an open question. 

Chiu worked with Chan in 2011 to fight against the federal Secure Communities program, which as we then reported, was a database allowing the feds to circumvent local policies protecting local immigrants who have been arrested but not convicted of any crimes and deport them.

They were partners in the struggle for human rights. So will Chiu back his former ally, Chan, in her re-appointment?

We called, texted, and harangued Chiu to call us back, but did not hear from him before press time. To be fair, he’s running for the Assembly and was likely between one of his dozens of necessary appearances. He did have an aide call us back, but he was unable to give us a hint at which direction Chiu may vote in. 

Complicating his choice is a mix of allegiances. With so many former and current allies on both sides, Chiu will make someone angry no matter which potential police commissioner he votes for, insiders told us. 

And Chiu’s vote may be the deciding one. With real reform of the SFPD on the line, the stakes are higher than the fictional Game of Thrones.

Ultimately, Chiu will have to vote his conscience. 

Correction 3:28pm: The article earlier identified Ivy Lee as married to Victor Hwang. In actuality, Hwang and Lee are romantic partners who decided not to marry in direct protest of the LGBT community being denied the right to marry.

Update 6:50pm: The vote was cast, and Victor Hwang was appointed to the Police Commission in place of Angela Chan. Read our full story.

Claim filed over SFPD shooting of Alejandro Nieto

The family of Alejandro Nieto, the 28-year-old City College student and community activist who was gunned down by the San Francisco Police Department March 21, has filed a claim against the city in preparation for a lawsuit responding to what they allege was an unjustified shooting. 

Friends, family and supporters of Nieto gathered in front of San Francisco City Hall April 14 with attorney John Burris, who is representing Nieto’s family. Burris is a prominent civil rights lawyer known for representing families whose sons have died as a result of officer involved shootings, including the family of Oscar Grant.

An initial examination of the body suggests Nieto died from wounds inflicted by at least 10 bullets, fired by multiple officers, Burris said. Police initially encountered Nieto in Bernal Heights Park in response to a 911 call reporting a man with a gun. Nieto, who was employed full-time as a security guard, actually possessed a Taser and not a firearm. Police said officers opened fire because he pointed the Taser at them, and they confused it with a gun when they saw a red dot emitted from the device after it was drawn, tracking officers.

Burris isn’t buying the police department’s account, but said he faces obstacles obtaining key information that would shed light on the incident.

“We have not been able to obtain the 911 audio,” or other communications records documenting what happened just before and after the shooting, Burris said. So far, the San Francisco Medical Examiner has not released an official report.

“That is part of the problem we are up against. We can make requests and ask for it to be preserved,” he said of the audio files, “but we cannot get it. And unfortunately, lawsuits are one way that we know we’re going to get it.”

Benjamin Bac Sierra, a friend of Nieto’s who is serving as a spokesperson for the family, waved a bundle of petitions he and community members had collected to call for an investigation at the local level. “Besides filing this claim, the family demands that San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon launch an official investigation into Alex’s killing by the San Francisco Police Department,” Bac Sierra said. “We demand that the district attorney fully investigate this case on behalf of Alex and his family.”

Burris said he believed moving forward with an independent lawsuit was necessary even as the Office of Citizen Complaints, an independent agency overseen by the San Francisco Police Commission, advances its own investigation.

“I’ve worked with the OCC on many cases in the past, but that’s on a parallel track. They have one process, we have another,” he said. “At the end of the day, we have to do our own to protect ourselves.”

Burris also said that given the recent history of federal prosecution against the SFPD, he believed the involvement of the U.S. Attorney’s office would be appropriate. “We’re requesting that the U.S. Attorneys here with the Department of Justice conduct an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Alex’s death,” Burris said, “and if necessary, file criminal charges against these officers.”

In a later conversation with the Bay Guardian, Bac Sierra noted that an audio recording of the shooting had been obtained from a neighbor of the park, who captured it through a home security system. Bac Sierra said the recording suggests two shots were initially fired, followed by a pause, followed by “a continuous volley” of shots. Bac Sierra, who declined to provide the neighbor’s name, said the sound file did not contain audible verbal communications prior to the shots being fired.

Community members angered by Nieto’s death have set up a website, justice4alexnieto.org, and have planned an event for the one-month anniversary of the shooting. Called Burritos on Bernal Hill, the gathering is scheduled for Monday, April 21, at Precita Park at 5pm.

Port of Oakland rejects deceptive contract bid by Black Muslim security firm


Editor’s Note: This report, which appears in today’s Oakland Tribune, is part of the continuing efforts of the Chauncey Bailey Project, a joint investigation by various media outlets (including the Bay Guardian) into the 2007 murder of Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey by members of Your Black Muslim Bakery.

By Thomas Peele and Matt O’Brien, Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND — Admitting they nearly entered into a deal with a questionable security company now under investigation, Port of Oakland commissioners on yesterday [Thu/27] Thursday vowed to revamp their contracting process.

“We came very close to approving a bad contract,” Commissioner Michael Colbruno said. “The whole procurement process” should be reviewed.

The commissioners voted 6-0 to back out of a contract with BMT International Security Services, which had submitted bogus references and credentials to win a $450,000 deal to patrol two shoreline parks.

The port has extended its existing contract with ABC Security to guard a 42-acre shoreline through the end of the year. Colbruno added that the port needs to have a better screening process.

Commission President Cestra Butner agreed.

“This commission will take our lumps if we did anything wrong,” he said. “We want to make sure we get things right. … I don’t want anything slipped under the rug.”

BMT, which is linked to Oakland’s defunct Your Black Muslim Bakery, had been in final negotiations with the port when this newspaper reported that its proposal contained references to work at other government agencies that had no record of ever doing business with it. The firm also appears to have inflated the credentials of its managers.

The company is now being investigated by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office and the state Department of Consumer Affairs. A former Oakland police officer also said in court papers that he believes the company stole a security company license number from him that he let lapse in 2008 when he retired.

BMT told the port that it had worked for BART, the San Joaquin County Housing Authority and the Riverside Transit Agency, but those agencies had no record of hiring the company. The firm also lost contracts with Alameda County and the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles when staff at those agencies discovered the Oakland company submitted apparently false insurance certification.

At least one Bay Area government noticed before awarding a contract that something appeared wrong with BMT’s credentials.

In 2011, the Vallejo City Council rejected a BMT proposal after city staff reported that the listed references were not calling back and one claimed to not know the company. BMT unsuccessfully appealed and some of its employees spoke out at a public meeting.

BMT sought another Vallejo contract in 2012 but again failed to win it. BMT owner Rory Parker sued the North Bay city in December, claiming she and her company experienced disparate treatment “because of their race, which is Black, and because of their religion, which is of the Islamic faith.”

The firm is run out of a Black Muslim temple in West Oakland whose minister, Dahood Sharieff Bey, was an associate of Your Black Muslim Bakery and a disciple of its founder, Yusuf Bey. Yusuf Bey touted his business enterprise as empowering African Americans, but prosecutors have described it as a wide-ranging criminal organization involved in violent crimes, real estate fraud and identity theft.

The bakery collapsed in 2007 when its members, led by Yusuf Bey IV, killed three men, including Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey. Bey IV is now serving a life prison term without parole. Prosecutors and police have linked five unsolved homicides to the bakery.

Dahood Bey, the minister who identified himself at a recent Oakland council meeting as “Mr. Pasha,” was tried for torture in 2010 but pleaded guilty to lesser charges when the jury could not reach a verdict. His co-defendant in that case, Basheer Fard Muhammad, has been the public face of BMT at port and other government meetings, urging officials to give it contracts.

BMT owner Rory Parker is Dahood Bey’s mother. The company also claimed in its port proposal to have a retired, Harvard-educated FBI agent serving as its chief financial officer and that its guards include former Secret Service agents.

Law enforcement records show San Francisco police officers arrested Muhammad in Oakland on Feb. 25 on suspicion of receiving stolen property, which was described as a “refrigerated sandwich table.” He was jailed for two days and released after the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute him. San Francisco police spokesman Sgt. Eric O’Neal has refused to release details about the case despite repeated requests.

BMT is also seeking a contract to work for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but transit officials there would not disclose any information about the bid until they finish evaluating all the proposals in May.

– See more at: http://www.chaunceybaileyproject.org/2014/03/28/port-of-oakland-unanimously-rejects-black-muslim-security-firms-bid-to-guard-shoreline-parks/#sthash.u7PagzEY.dpuf




Unanswered question on SF housing


Nobody has a good answer to San Francisco’s most basic housing problem: How do we build the housing that existing city residents need? It was a question the Guardian has been posing for many years, and one that I again asked a panel of journalists and housing advocates on March 14, again getting no good answers.

The question is an important one given Mayor Ed Lee’s so-called "affordability agenda" and pledge to build 30,000 new housing units, a third of them somehow affordable, by 2020. And it’s a question that led to the founding 30 years ago of Bridge Housing, the builder of affordable and supportive housing that assembled this media roundtable.

"There really isn’t one thing, there needs to be a lot of changes in a lot of areas to make it happen," was the closest that Bridge CEO Cynthia Parker came to answering the question.

One of those things is a general obligation bond measure this fall to fund affordable housing and transportation projects around the Bay Area, which Bridge and a large coalition of other partners are pushing. That would help channel some of the booming Bay Area’s wealth into its severely underfunded affordable housing and transit needs.

When I brought up other ideas from our March 12 Guardian editorial ("Lee must pay for his promises") for capturing more of the city’s wealth — such as new taxes on tech companies, a congestion pricing charge, and downtown transit assessment districts — Parker replied, "We’d be in favor of a lot of that."

Yet it’s going to take far more proactive, aggressive, and creative actions to really bridge the gap between the San Francisco Housing Element’s analysis that 60 percent of new housing should be below-market-rate and affordable to those earning 120 percent or less of the area median income, and the less than 20 percent that San Francisco is actually building and promoting through its policies. (Steven T. Jones)

No charges in CCSF protest

The two formerly jailed City College student protesters can now breathe a sigh of relief, as they learned March 19 that the District Attorney’s Office won’t be filing criminal charges against them.

Otto Pippenger, 20, and Dimitrios Philliou, 21, were detained by SFPD following a violent clash during a City College protest on March 13. Their ideological and physical fight for democracy at their school is also the subject of one of our print articles in this week’s Guardian ("Democracy for none," March 18). Philliou’s attorney confirmed to the Guardian that charges were not pursued by the District Attorney’s Office.

"The charges have been dropped for now, in terms of the criminal case," said Rachel Lederman, president of the San Francisco chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, which is representing Philliou.

But, she noted, they’re not out of the fire yet.

"The fight is not over for them," she said, "as it’s possible they’ll face school discipline."

Heidi Alletzhauser, Pippenger’s mother, told the Guardian that Vice Chancellor Faye Naples indicated the two would face some sort of disciplinary hearing, though Naples told Alletzhauser that Pippenger would not be expelled. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez)

Activists cross the border

Last November, the Guardian profiled Alex Aldana, a queer immigration activist who was born in Mexico but came to Pomona, California with his mother and sister on a visa at the age of 16 ("Undocumented and unafraid," 11/12/14).

On March 18, Aldana joined a group of undocumented immigrants in a protest at the US border crossing at Otay Mesa in San Diego. Chanting together as a group, they marched over the border and presented themselves to U.S. Immigration and Customs and Border protection agents, whom they asked for asylum.

Among the immigrants who surrendered to immigration agents were women, children, and teens. Some are separated from their husbands, children, and families in the US and, like my own mother (see "They deported my mom," March 11), wish to be reunited.

The youth protesters were brought to the US earlier in childhood, but deported to Mexico after being taken into custody and detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some would have qualified to remain under the Dream Act, but were forced to leave the country before it was signed into law.

The protesters marched toward the turnstiles that separate Mexico and the US, chanting "Yes we can," and "No human is illegal."

A few feet from the gates, the group paused to listen to a final pep talk from Aldana.

The action was captured and recorded in real time on U-Stream. About 16 minutes into the video, he can be seen addressing the crowd, fist raised. "We have nothing to lose but our chains," Aldana told the group. Then, in Spanish, he said, "Without papers," to which his fellow protesters responded, "without fear."

They made their way to the turnstiles and one by one they walked through, straight into custody of US border guards. As they crossed the border, they told a cameraperson where they hoped to go. They named cities, such as Phoenix and Tucson, and states, such as Alabama, Oregon, and North Carolina. But each one said, in English or Spanish, "we’re going home."

It was part of a series of organized border crossings by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, to highlight the experiences of young people who lived for years in the United States but were deported due to their immigration status. In Aldana’s case, he traveled to Mexico voluntarily, due to a family emergency. (Francisco Alvarado)

Oakland settles with injured Occupier

Iraq War veteran and injured Occupy Oakland protester Scott Olsen, 26, won a settlement of $4.5 million from the city of Oakland in a federal lawsuit, his attorneys announced March 21.

At the tail end of a thousands-strong 2011 Occupy Oakland protest, an Oakland Police Department officer fired a beanbag directly into Olsen’s head, causing serious and lasting brain injury. His attorney, Rachel Lederman, said that was why the payout was so high.

"His bones were shattered, part of his brain was destroyed," she told the Guardian. "He’d been working as a computer system network administrator. He’s not going back to that kind of work, and it compensates him for his wage loss for his lifetime."

But in the end, she said, "No amount of money can put his head back together." (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez)

Guardian seeks columnists

The Bay Guardian is looking for a pair of new freelance writers to do separate monthly columns covering the technology industry and economic/social justice issues. The two new columns would go into a rotation we’re tentatively calling Soul of the City, along with Jason Henderson’s Street Fight column and a new environmental column by News Editor Rebecca Bowe that we’ll debut in our Earth Day issue.

For the technology column, we want someone with a deep understanding of this industry, its economic and personality drivers, and the role it could and should play in the civic life of San Francisco and nearby communities. We aren’t looking for gadget reviews or TechCrunch-style evangelizing or fetishizing of the tech sector, but someone with an illuminating, populist perspective that appeals to a broad base of Guardian readers.

The other column, on economic and social justice issues, would cover everything from housing rights to labor to police accountability issues, with an eye toward how San Francisco can maintain its diversity and cultural vibrancy. We want someone steeped in Bay Area political activism and advocacy, but with an independent streak and fearless desire to speak truth to power.

We strongly encourage candidates of color, young people, and those representing communities that need a stronger voice in the local political discourse to apply.

If you’re interested, please sent your qualifications and concepts, along with one sample column and ideas for future columns, to Editor-in-Chief Steven T. Jones at steve@sfbg.com. Help us escalate this fight for the soul of the city by adding your voice to the Guardian’s mix.

No charges filed against City College student protesters


The two formerly jailed City College student protesters can now breathe a sigh of relief, as this morning they learned that the District Attorney’s Office won’t be filing criminal charges against them.

Otto Pippenger, 20, and Dimitrios Philliou, 21, were detained by SFPD following a violent clash during a City College protest last Thursday. Their ideological and physical fight for democracy at their school is also the subject of one of our print articles in this week’s Guardian. Philliou’s attorney confirmed to the Guardian that charges were not pursued by the District Attorney’s Office.

“The charges have been dropped for now, in terms of the criminal case,” said Rachel Lederman, president of the San Francisco chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, which is representing Philliou. 

But, she noted, they’re not out of the fire yet. 

“The fight is not over for them,” she said, “as it’s possible they’ll face school discipline.”

Heidi Alletzhauser, Pippenger’s mother, told the Guardian that Vice Chancellor Faye Naples indicated the two would face some sort of disciplinary hearing, though Naples told Alletzhauser that Pippenger would not be expelled.

We called Napes to confirm, but did not hear back from her, and we’ll update this post if and when we do. 

Alletzhauser was concerned that the Chancellor Arthur Q. Tyler publicly pointed a finger at the two boys, shaming them for their actions in a letter he penned to the community and to the press. “I am saddened to see students engaging in violent outbursts,” he wrote. The letter as a whole seems to cast a shadow of blame on the protesters. 

“It sounded to me like they were sure Otto and Dimitrios were guilty,” Alletzhauser said.

The school hearing has not yet been confirmed. Alletzhauser was happy to see her son and Dimitrios get back to school.

“They both had classes at 10, so they went to school,” she said. “Which is adorable, I think.”

Sexual assault survivors seek reform at the University of California

University of California Berkeley graduate Nicoletta Commins was 20 when she was sexually assaulted, in early 2012. She’d been taking a Taekwondo class, and said her teammate assaulted her when they were in her apartment.

He was “just an acquaintance,” she said in a phone interview. “We were sort of flirty, but not close friends.”

Following the incident, she had a pervasive sense of fear. “He was on campus for a month or a little more, after this happened. I was really depressed. They let me take a reduced workload, but it was hard to keep up with school,” she said. “I took windy ways to school to avoid him. I saw him on campus and it was a terrifying experience. There was one time I saw him walking by, and I hid behind a car.”

Adding to that stress was the difficulty Commins says she encountered after formally reporting the assault and awaiting a response from campus officials.

Late last month, 31 women who currently or formerly attended UC Berkeley filed formal complaints with the federal Department of Education, alleging that the university had mishandled sexual assault investigations through repeated failure to adequately address reports of these incidents.

Universities are bound to comply with Title IX, a federal civil rights law that requires postsecondary institutions to take measures to protect sexual assault victims. They must also adhere to the Clery Act, which requires reporting of crime statistics and for security policies to be in accordance with federal guidelines.

In their complaint, sexual assault survivors charged that UC Berkeley had violated their rights under Title IX and the Clery Act by failing to meet the complaints with adequate investigation and response. This was the second formal complaint to be lodged along these lines: Last May, nine women who had attended UC Berkeley came forward with an Office of Civil Rights complaint charging the same. This most recent filing was an updated complaint with accounts from more survivors.

After the sexual violence she experienced, Commons said she immediately sought medical care and reported what had happened. Initially, campus staff was responsive, she said. She met with a representative from the Office of Student Conduct, followed by a meeting with a campus coordinator tasked with Title IX compliance.

“People reached out to me. People told me their burden of evidence is lower at the school than the court,” she recounted. “They said people will see disciplinary action in the school that they won’t see from law enforcement.”

But time went on, and she heard nothing. “No one would tell me anything or respond to emails. All of a sudden everyone left me in the dark. They told me there’d be a hearing to participate in. Then nothing. For months.”

Getting nowhere through campus channels, she decided to go to the police, prompting the Alameda County District Attorney to become involved in her case.

After a year and a half had gone by, a settlement was finally reached. “Part of it included him not coming back to school for a few years before I left the campus,” she explained. “He had to get counseling. He was excluded from school functions, and [was barred] from contacting me.”

But she believes UC’s hand was forced by her decision to involve law enforcement. “If I had not reported to the police and the DA had not come to agreement with the lawyers, [the settlement] would not have happened,” she said. “It was an agreement between the DA’s office and the school.”

Following the initial OCR complaint last May, the California Legislature ordered the State Auditor to conduct an audit of UC Berkeley and three other universities, to assess outcomes of sexual violence complaints on a broad scale and to investigate whether the universities’ policies are in compliance with federal guidelines.

“Sexual violence is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about, particularly in an educational environment,” Assemblymember Anthony Rendon wrote in a letter calling for the audit.

“I am particularly concerned with the recent allegations made by the nine women from UC Berkeley stating that their cases were simply not taken seriously by campus officials and not reported properly. Campus officials discouraged them from reporting their cases to police and did not provide these victims with adequate support services … These women are broken down physically and emotionally. The lack of support they received from the officials on campus is attributable to this.”

Margarita Fernández, spokesperson for the State Auditor, said the audit was a work in progress and that findings could be released in June.

“The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights received a complaint that alleges discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual violence, race and disability at the University of California-Berkeley,” a spokesperson from that agency wrote in a statement to the Bay Guardian. “The Department is evaluating the complaint allegations to determine whether they are appropriate for a civil rights investigation.”

In the interim, the UC system has taken some steps in the wake of the federal complaints. According to a March 7 announcement, the school released a new policy against sexual violence and harassment that provides for expanded training and education, increased reporting requirements, and broader protections for victims, according to a recent announcement from the office of UC President Janet Napolitano.

UC Berkeley has also issued a formal response, with Chancellor Nicholas Dirks issuing a Feb. 25 letter to announce efforts to streamline campus policies around responding to sexual violence.

Addressing the sexual assault victims who came forward, Dirks said, “I have been deeply moved by your courage and conviction, and offer my full support for your efforts.”   

We sought to contact representatives from the campus’ Gender Equity Resource center, which provides assistance to sexual assault victims, but received a statement from campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore instead.

“We are committed to taking a close look at what we can do to better serve students and incorporate their concerns as we seek to address these issues,” Gilmore wrote. “That process remains underway.”

Crooked cops



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.

Feds indict SFPD cops, alleging a drug ring and shakedowns of the poor


Federal grand juries today indicted four San Francisco Police Department officers, an SFPD sergeant, and a former SFPD officer on a variety of corruption, civil rights violations, and theft charges stemming from illegal raids on poor residents of single room occupancy hotels in San Francisco.

“Our department is shaken,” Police Chief Greg Suhr told reporters at a morning news conference. “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.” Shortly after Suhr was sworn in as chief in April 2011, he changed department policies related to the SROs, including preventing officers from using pass keys to enter the buildings without a warrant or the rooms without probable cause.

The pattern of alleged criminal behavior by SFPD officers was exposed in early 2011 by Public Defender Jeff Adachi, whose investigators found video surveillance from the Henry Hotel and other local SROs that supported defendants claims that police were shaking them down and then submitting false police reports.

“The indictments today are a victory for ordinary San Franciscans,” Adachi told reporters today, emphasizing that in addition to personally profiting from the shakedown, these officers were also submitting false testimony in perhaps hundreds of cases, including 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 sent individuals to prison based on the testimony of these officers.”

Once the videos were made public, the investigation was referred to federal investigators because District Attorney George Gascon’s office had a conflict of interest, given that he had just come from serving as police chief in the SFPD, where he presided over the officers involved in this scandal.

Gascon issued a public statement saying, “I am relieved to know that the officers have been indicted after I referred the matter to federal authorities. 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. As law enforcement, we must all work hard to ensure our agencies operate with the highest integrity and are deserving of the trust the public bestows upon us.”

Raw video of the press conference via KTVU.

His office didn’t respond to Guardian questions about his culpability in the scandal, but Gascon is likely to be asked about it when he holds a press briefing this hour. [UPDATE 5:30PM: During a brief press availability, Gascon said the indictments shouldn’t be considered a reflection of his leadership of the department: “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 being accused of shaking down tenants in the SROs, he said, “We became aware at the same time everyone else did, when the videos came out.” The press availability was cut off after 10 minutes because Gascon was giving a State of Public Safety speech upstairs, showing up 25 minutes later, but spokesperson Alex Bastian said he would try to get answers tomorrow to Guardian questions about Gascon’s record and independence when it comes to prosecuting police abuse cases.]

Those indicted today were Officers Arshad Razzak, Richard Yick, Raul Eric Elias, and Edmond Robles, and Sgt. Ian Furminger. Also indicted was former officer Reynaldo Vargas, who was caught on videotape appearing to steal a laptop computer from a tenants in the Henry Hotel, and who Suhr said was dismissed from the SFPD before the federal investigation began.

Suhr also said that all of those involved have been on administrative duties throughout the investigation, which the SFPD cooperated with, and that some of them (he couldn’t say how many) were also required to turn in their firearms.

These indictments also don’t appear to be the end of this unfolding scandal. “There were other officers involved and they will be dealt with administratively,” Suhr said without providing details. When asked by the Guardian whether anyone in the command staff may face discipline, Suhr said “no.”

But with these six facing possibly lengthy prison terms, it will be interesting to see what they have to say about what others in the SFPD knew about their actions, which also allegedly involved running a drug ring out of Mission Station, where Furminger, Robles, and Vargas are accused of illegally seizing and selling marijuana.

Adachi wants to see this investigation continue: “It would be hard to believe that nobody who was involved in supervising these officers was aware of it.”

Two views of sex work



There are two starkly different ways to look at prostitution in the Bay Area. One view sees sex workers as victims, not just those exploited by the horrible practices of human trafficking and child prostitution, but all sex workers. The other view accepts that sex work can be a legitimate choice made by consenting adults, a job less demeaning and more empowering than many low-wage service jobs.

Those divergent perspectives clashed on the streets of San Francisco on Feb. 11 when the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women hosted a panel discussion in the Main Public Library on "discouraging demand" for prostitution, a goal that prostitutes trying to cover their rising rents don’t share, as they said outside while protesting the event.

In the spotlight at the forum was San Francisco’s First Offender Prostitution Program, also known as "John School," which was first implemented in 1995 to curb the commercial sex trade and provide an alternative to criminal charges for those caught soliciting prostitution, much like traffic school for bad drivers.

A March 2008 study, "Final Report on the Evaluation of the First Offender Program," by researcher Michael Shively, hailed the program as a success, with claims of vastly reduced rearrest rates and high attendance numbers. In 1999, 822 people qualified to enter the program, and that had dropped to 333 participants in 2007.

Fees generated by the program totaled $3.1 million from 1999 through 2007, which was split among the District Attorney’s Office, San Francisco Police Department, and the anti-prostitution group Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE).

But human trafficking and sex work have shown few signs of abating in the Bay Area, where law enforcement sources say Alameda County is one of the state’s biggest prostitution hot spots. And groups like SAGE say all sex work abuses women, whereas rival groups like the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) say it is the criminalization of prostitution that drives it underground and allows heinous practices like child prostitution to flourish.

Christina Deangelo says she’s been a sex worker since the late 1970s, and she showed up at the event to criticize its judgmental and one-sided program. "Without having even one of us on the panel, who can actually tell you [what is going on], you are killing us," she said.

The sex workers who showed up were particularly critical of panelist Melissa Farley, a controversial psychologist and researcher who spent years studying prostitution and sex trafficking. As an advocate of abolishing prostitution and a proponent of the "Discouraging Demand" strategy, Farley has been met with much criticism in the past.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel disqualified Farley as a witness in 2010, ruling that "Dr. Farley’s unqualified assertion in her affidavit that prostitution is inherently violent appears to contradict her own findings that prostitutes who work from indoor locations generally experience less violence."

Sex worker advocates have also slammed Farley, such as blogger and activist Jessica Nicole, who says Farley "makes further manipulative and disturbing language decisions in her research of clients of sex workers," saying that Farley doesn’t "understand the complexities of the industries she is researching."

Farley has argued that prostitution is "inherently violent," and harmful both physically and mentally to the women involved. She says that her research shows that "89% [of sex workers] I spoke to want to get out of prostitution. Most see it as a last ditch effort for survival."

But many sex workers disagree, and they have grown more vocal about their stance on the business. Rather than a profession dominated by victims of forced trafficking and exploitation, they say that a large number of women and men actually like the job. But public and legal condemnation of the profession often prevents sex workers from getting help when they need it.

Workers acknowledge the dangers that go along with their profession, which they see as a major reason to at least decriminalize it and improve methods to protect workers from abusive pimps and clients.

Various studies on the subject have concluded how much more likely sex workers are to be victims of sexual and physical abuse, and have a high chance of drug addiction, more than any group of women in the world.

Sex workers spoke of the need to differentiate between indoor workers (high class call girls) and street walkers, different worlds entirely. They’re critical of Dr. Farley for writing, "while the women in street prostitution work the fields, call girls, escorts and massage parlor workers are the house niggers of this system."

The panel event showed the deep division between law enforcement and sex workers. The government’s ideal method of prosecuting what it deems indecent has not cured most vice businesses, even Casey Bates for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office’s human trafficking division admitted at the event.

"We cannot arrest our way out of this problem," he said.

Though hardly an advocate of decriminalization or legalization of sex work, Bates does acknowledge that the issue can’t be tackled in the one-dimensional fashion as it is now. And sex workers say they need to be included in discussions about problems in their industry.