Feds, SF cops accused of biased drug busts

Federal defense attorneys allege that drug trafficking stings conducted in a joint operation between federal and local law enforcement officials in San Francisco’s Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods targeted individuals based on their race.

According to the Federal Public Defender’s Office of the Northern District of California, all 37 people who were arrested between 2013 and 2014 for dealing small amounts of drugs during the joint taskforce sweeps, known as Operation Safe Schools, were black. Attorneys representing those caught in the sweeps have filed a motion asking the court to hear all the cases together.

Abraham Simmons, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of California, said today that while his office has no comment on the allegations of bias, his office is reviewing the motion filed to relate the cases and if necessary, will respond in court.

The sweeps, part of a program called Operation Safe Schools, was a joint effort by the San Francisco Field Division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and San Francisco Police Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. According to the motion filed on Tuesday:

“In total, thirty-seven people have been targeted by the … Operation Safe Schools taskforce. Every single one is Black.”

U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag has stressed the significance of protecting school zones to ensure that children who live and go to school in these neighborhoods are not exposed to crime and drug dealing. She said:

“We intend to continue with this initiative and others like it until the children in our community are no longer exposed to these dangerous situations.”

But the Federal Public Defender’s Office of the Northern District of California is concerned that defendants in the cases were targeted due to their race. The attorneys also note in the motion concerns raised by recently revealed evidence of racial bias by San Francisco officers against African-Americans.

City officials announced last month that several police officers were under investigation in connection with the discovery of a number of racist and homophobic text messages. The messages were discovered by the FBI during a 2009 investigation into three San Francisco officers accused of stealing money and property from suspects.

San Francisco police Chief Greg Suhr said earlier this week that he expects to recommend terminations and suspensions for officers who were involved in the exchange of homophobic and racist text messages by the end of this week.

San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar chaired a Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee Thursday in response to the text messages. He said that those incidents demonstrate that racism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry remain a problem within the city’s police department and criminal justice system:

“All our law enforcement agencies must uphold all of our resident’s civil rights and maintain a justice system that is free of bias. … It is extremely worrisome how these prejudices play out on our streets and in the courts.”

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the defendants arrested in Operation Safe Schools are each charged with the distribution of prohibited drugs on or within 1,000 feet of a school or playground and are charged with distributing various controlled substances, such as crack cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and oxycodone.

Since the defendants are facing federal charges, they face a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in jail with at least six years of supervised release if found guilty.