The San Francisco Police Department is facing its biggest scandal in years after Public Defender Jeff Adachi released videos last week that allegedly show plainclothes narcotics officers repeatedly busting into a SoMa residential hotel without a warrant. The recordings were captured by security cameras mounted inside the Henry Hotel at 106 Sixth Street.
Seemingly every day, a new video pops up. On Monday, Adachi released videos of a December 2 narcotics arrest. The Public Defender claims the 29-year-old man inside the targeted room was set up by officers and then charged with possession of cocaine. Charges were later dropped in this and thirteen additional cases following the release of the videos. Additionally, thousands of cases involving eight officers from the Southern District’s plainclothes squad may be called into question because of the footage and what it purportedly depicts.
The officers are: Samuel Christ, Arshad Razzak, Gregory Buhagiar, Richard Yick, Robert Forneris, Arthur Madrid, Raymond Kane and Raul Elias. Two of the officers, Gregory Buhagiar and Arshad Razzak, have been accused of rights violations in the past. The two have also been involved with the Southern District’s Robbery Abatement Team and were both accused by Deputy Public Defender Ariel Boyce-Smith of falsifying reports and eliciting statements from a robbery suspect without reading him his Miranda rights.
In that case, the jury opted to acquit the suspect, 44-year-old Robert Herbert, because Buhagiar and Razzak’s statements were “not believable,” according to Boyce-Smith. In their reports and in court, the officers claimed Herbert took money from Buhagiar, who was acting as a wheelchair-bound “decoy,” and walked away with the bait money Buhagiar had in his pocket. Herbert said he did not flee and was trying to get the officer to put away his money when he was arrested by other RAT officers.
This brewing scandal may also test District Attorney (and former police chief) George Gascón’s willingness to prosecute police misconduct. Adachi, who has previously expressed concern about Gascón’s impartiality in investigating officer-involved shootings, sent a letter to the District Attorney’s office today requesting records pertaining to the eight Southern District Plainclothes officers implicated in the scandal.
For his part, Gascón has said he does not have any plans to farm out any prosecutions to another agency. “It’s very concerning. We are taking this very seriously,” Gascón told reporters at a press conference last week. “We are going to make sure we conduct a very thorough, independent investigation of this case.”
Last month, Gascón’s office refused to make public documents regarding officer-involved shootings that are available in other counties around the state, prompting former Police Commissioner (and District Attorney candidate) David Onek to question Gascón’s impartiality when it comes to his former department.
If Gascón did recuse himself from the SFPD investigation, it’s possible that the attorney general’s office–which would usually take on the responsibility–would also encounter conflict of interest issues. Five of the dropped narcotics cases were initiated by California Attorney General Kamala Harris during the last several months of her term as San Francisco District Attorney.
Conflict of interest is a common problem with investigations of law enforcement, who work side by side with District Attorney’s offices. Some jurisdictions have appointed independent prosecutors who solely handle cases of alleged police misconduct (see the following document from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights). But law enforcement and politicians don’t necessarily embrace the idea. In Baltimore, MD, these tensions have surfaced recently as the local District Attorney considers whether or not to disband his office’s 10-year-old police misconduct division amidst a wave of police scandals.
In San Francisco’s case, the FBI has been brought in to lead its own investigation fo the alleged misconduct. However, in recent years the FBI and the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice has rarely taken on allegations of police misconduct in California. A pattern-and-practice investigation into officer-involved shootings in Inglewood back in 2009 is the most recent action the FBI’s Civil Rights Division has taken in California. As of mid-December, the FBI was still looking into charging Johannes Mehserle for the shooting of Oscar Grant, according to a source in the FBI’s Oakland office.