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."