When Police Chief Greg Suhr got sworn in at City Hall a month ago, reporters each got to ask one question during a hastily convened media roundtable inside Mayor Ed Lee’s office. And since the Guardian’s story about the FBI’s secret agreement with the San Francisco Police Department had just hit the streets, I asked the new Chief, if he would welcome clarification around the duties of SFPD officers assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Taskforce.
Chief Suhr said he believed an examination of the wording of the FBI’s most recent memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the department was already under way. "I believe that the MOU is being revisited,” Suhr said. “I have not been a part of that, but again I think we have a real good policy with regard to our intelligence gathering and that does supercede any ask of any other agency. The officers are bound by policies and procedures. And that policy was well thought out with tremendous community and group input years and years ago, from situations that have not since repeated themselves. I think a lot of people back then couldn't believe they happened in the first place, but I think measures were well thought out and put in place to make sure we don't have a problem again."
Fast forward three weeks, and Suhr found himself in the hot seat at a May 18 joint meeting of the Human Rights Commission and the Police Commission, where commissioners got an update about the Police Department’s response to community concerns about surveillance, racial and religious profiling of Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian Communities and the potential reactivation of SFPD Intelligence Gathering.
After Suhr introduced his new Command Staff—and stressed their great diversity--Police Commission President Thomas Mazzucco, who was Suhr’s football coach in high school, tried to assure folks that the Police Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the FBI, the SFPD, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Asian Law Caucus had already addressed the community's intelligence-gathering concerns, in part through a bureau order that Chief Suhr then introduced during the hearing, in which Suhr clarified that SFPD policies trump FBI guidelines every time.
And Mazzucco, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California and a former Assistant District Attorney for San Francisco, before Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed him to the Commission in 2008, noted that the community’s concerns were based on allegations. not factual findings.
But his comments got folks wondering whether Mazzucco’s prior involvement with the feds left him with a blind spot that is preventing the Police Commission from dealing with the issue in a timely and effective manner, particularly since Commissioner Jim Hammer’s term has expired, and the rest of the Commission is waiting for the Board’s Rules Committee to decide between nominating David Waggoner, L. Julius Turman, Phillip Hogan or Vanessa Jackson as the next new Police Commissioner.
For, as members of the public observed during the meeting, if the Police Commission President himself expresses no outrage at finding that the Commission’s policies have been undercut for the past four years by secret agreements between SFPD and the FBI, how can San Francisco claim to have a credible system of civilian oversight?
Instead, they felt that Mazzucco seemed more concerned about defending federal practices and officials, who were unwilling to show up at the May 18 hearing, than worrying about the role and authority of the civilian oversight body he now represents. And attorneys with the ACLU and the Asian Law Caucus noted that though Suhr characterized his new order as being based on the Portland resolution and a prior proposal from community advocates, they believe Suhr’s approach can only work with the written consent of the FBI, (which SFPD doesn’t have) if the FBI’s 2007 contract is left in place.
“That’s why there is a need for a transition to a non-MOU, Portland-style resolution,” ACLU’s John Crew told the Guardian, noting that ACLU’s willingness to work collaboratively with the commissioners and the new Chief should not be confused with a willingness on ACLU's part to roll over and accept an approach that is based on wishful thinking rather than the realities of the MOU that's still in place.
During the May 18 joint hearing, Chief Suhr acknowledged “the validity of the perceptions raised by the community,” even as he insisted that SFPD has “very strict policies” in place to ensure appropriate oversight for investigation- involving activities.
Suhr summarized the history of those policies, including ACLU’s John Crew’s involvement in creating Department General Order (DGO) 8.10, which establishes that there must be reasonable suspicion before SFPD intelligence gathering can occur.
Suhr noted that SFPD joined FBI’s Joint Terrorism Taskforce (JTTF) after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and SFPD officers assigned to the JTTF subsequently came under control of the Department of Homeland Security unit, but starting now, they are back under SFPD’s special investigations.
“I gave the order today that JTTF will be moved back under SFPD’s special investigation unit,” Suhr said. “They will have the security clearance necessary to oversee the activities. The members are required to comply with all department policies, even if they can conflict with FBI policies. Simply said, San Francisco policies, procedures, laws, and statute trump any federal policy or procedure. Our officers are bound by those.”
Suhr said that to ensure everyone is clear about the chain of command, he'd drafted his May 18 bureau order. “It essentially turns back the clock and emphasizes that officers are responsible for our policies and procedures first, and our officers are bound to identify themselves as San Francisco police officers," Suhr said, further noting that he’d be happy to further amend his new order as needed.
And Mazzucco noted that SFPD has absolutely no jurisdiction whatsoever over the Transportation Security Administration’s activities at the airport.
But while Human Rights Commission Chair Michael Sweet said Suhr’s new bureau order, “goes a long way toward helping to alleviate some of the concerns,” he and many commissioners noted that this was their first chance to read the order. And Sweet said he saw the May 18 joint hearing “as by no means the end of the discussion.”
HRC director Theresa Sparks, who was on the Police Commission when the FBI drafted its 2007 JTTF MOU, noted that the issue is not whether we should opt out, but what we can do to ensure that officers involved in activities have “strong civilian oversight of their activities and report activities through the established civilian oversight mechanisms and procedures defined in DGO 8.10.”
” Our approach to achieve this objective is to publish internal directives ensuring our officers only participate in activities that meet our local standards of reasonable suspicion,” Sparks stated, claiming that Suhr’s order will “ give the city control over misconduct charges and allegations of misconduct charges.”
Sparks noted that the May 18 hearing was a status report about “alleged violations by the FBI and SFPD, as well as airport police,” and that the HRC “did no independent investigation” to verify these allegations.
Sparks added that HRC and the Immigrant Rights Commission has a tentative agreement to move forward with townhall meetings to address community concerns, and will encourage the Board to appoint a special prosecutor to determine if the prosecution of terrorism cases is valid and fair, and discuss the need for an Ombudsman at the airport. And she talked about the need for SFPD to establish legal safeguards, mechanisms for greater transparency and oversight, and conduct more detailed yearly audits.
“Tonight was a real dialogue about the issues,” Sparks said, further noting that civilian oversight of local JTTFs is also a popular discussion in Oakland and in Portland, Oregon, which has decided to rejoin its local JTTF after opting out in March 2005. But she didn’t mention that Portland had entered into a resolution with the FBI, instead of signing a new MOU with the feds.
That explanation was left to Veena Dubal of the Asian Law Caucus and ACLU’s Crew-- in between explaining why they believe Suhr’s Bureau Order isn’t enough. “The good news is that we all collectively agree that SFPD policies should apply to SFPD officers assigned to the JTTF,” Dubal said. “The bad news is that the recently released MOU, which was secret for four years, doesn't reflect our collective desires.”
Dubal stated that the FBI won’t amend its 2007 MOU with the SFPD.
“And that is why the Chief issued the bureau order,” Dubal stated, claiming that the FBI Special Agent in Charge of JTTF involvement recently told ALC and the ACLU that the FBI will continue to block key parts of local policy central to accountability and oversight.
“But there's a solution and it doesn't necessitate a divorce from the joint terrorism task force,” Dubal continued, noting that there are now two ways for local law enforcement officers to participate in JTTFs: an MOU, in which SFPD resources are put into the hands of FBI with relatively no local control, as in the SFPD’s 2007 agreement with the FBI. Or via a resolution which the federal government just approved in Portland, which allows participation in the JTTF, but provides much better protection for civil rights and gives the police department and the police commission more control of the relationship.
Dubal noted that in the decade since 9/11, the FBI has expanded its intelligence powers, and its agents are now allowed to conduct intelligence without a factual connection to criminal activity.
“Given these massive shifts in FBI activity, the question is, what should the relationship between the SFPD and the FBI look like?” Dubal said.
“Unlike the FBI, the SFPD is not a national security organization, “ Dubal continued, noting that when SFPD signed up to work with the JTTF under an MOU that preserved local control and policies, “it wasn't assuming that some of its officers, paid for by San Francisco taxpayers, could be transformed into national security agents.”
”The SFPD signed on without telling anyone, not even the police commission,” Dubal said, noting that SFPD cannot afford to participate in these practices. “We need community trust to keep all of our communities safe.”
ACLU’s Crew noted that the FBI came to the SFPD in 2007 with a new MOU. “And perhaps inadvertently, there was no review by the City Attorney, and no notice to the police commission,” Crew said. “And it's a drastically different MOU, unfortunately.”
“Now, we didn't know about that MOU because it was kept secret at the insistence of the FBI for four years,” Crew continued, further noting that when ACLU and ALC met with the SFPD in 2010, they were suddenly told that the police department couldn't talk about these issues without FBI permission.
“That set off a warning sign,” Crew observed, noting that in early April, when the ACLU and ALC finally got the MOU released, their worst suspicions were confirmed.
“There was no public discussion of transforming the SFPD into a national intelligence gathering association,” Dubal said. “The problem is that the FBI changed the deal, and the SFPD signed it, without telling anyone.”
Dubal noted stark differences between the FBI’s 2002 MOU and the one the SFPD signed in 2007, along with stark changes to FBI guidelines that occurred in 2008, in the dying days of the Bush administration, and that now allow a new assessment category, that does not require reasonable suspicion and has been criticized by civil liberties groups.
And according to Crew, the FBI’s new MOU “puts at risk the very concept of civilian control.” As Crew noted, between the mid 1990s, when the SFPD developed DGO 8.10, which governs its officers’ intelligence-gathering policies and procedures, and 2007, when the FBI prepared a new JTTF MOU, there’d been little controversy over intelligence-gathering in San Francisco.
“And then, perhaps inadvertently, the SFPD signed that MOU and it was drastically different and kept secret at the insistence of the FBI for four years,” Crew observed.
And in 2010, the SFPD suddenly said it couldn’t talk about the issue without the permission of the FBI, Crew added, noting that “Unnecessary secrecy breeds suspicion.”
“We don’t think the Bureau Order is sufficient,” Crew concluded. “This is an issue that has to be dealt with at the Police Commission level.”
Crew noted that the Portland City Council chose not to enter into an MOU, “specifically because it restricts the ability to provide local control and local oversight. “
“So, we are not saying opt out, but we are saying there needs to be a transition to a resolution that maintains local control over the assignment of officers and provides all these elements of civilian oversight,” Crew continued.
He claimed that the federal government says a resolution is possible, as long as you're not doing it under an MOU.
“So the question is, if that level of protection is available now to the people in Oregon, why would San Francisco not take the same deal?” Crew said. “All you have to do is give 60 days' notice to the FBI that are you going to start this transition to a resolution. That notice period allows the FBI to have any comments or express any concerns they want, I think it's very regrettable that they chose not to participate tonight and unfortunately I think it says something in terms of how seriously they take these concerns.”
Crew concluded that such a transition would be a win-win situation.
”If we went to a resolution that merely asserted local policy, then they could keep doing exactly what they're doing now,” Crew said. “On the other hand, if it turns out that there's activities SFPD is involved in that they shouldn't be involved in, don't we want those stopped?
“The one comment I will make of the bureau of general order is that I'm thankful to hear it's a work in progress,” Crew added, noting that ACLU and ALC “don't think a bureau order is sufficient. That’s because it can be changed at any time without the notice of the police commission, without a public hearing.”
But Mazzucco disagrees with ACLU and ALC’s claims that FBI intelligence-gathering guidelines have been relaxed since 2008.
“There are no random assessments, and there has to be a predicate of a criminal violation,” Mazzucco told commissioners, noting that ” with honorable people like Bob Mueller” (Mazzucco’s former boss) “running the FBI, there should be a level of confidence that there will not be any violations.
And in a follow-up call, Mazzucco told the Guardian that he thought Suhr’s bureau order clarifies that “local officers follow SFPD rules.”
Mazzucco also suggested that Police Commission oversight, “is more over policy and procedures and less about operations,” by way of explaining how the SFPD’s 2007 MOU with the FBI never came before the Commission.
“But I suggested that we see the next MOU in this area,” Mazzucco added.
And he proposed “a simple solution” moving forward, namely transparency and educating the public,” about the JTTF.
“SFPD is probably the most diverse police department in the country,” Mazzucco said. “And there is civilian oversight. We won’t let anything untoward happen.”
And he praised the new US Attorney for Northern California Melinda Haag, and FBI Special Agent Stephanie Douglas for their participation in recent meetings with city officials about the community’s intelligence-gathering concerns.
“The good news is that nothing controversial is going on here,” he said, noting that out of the broad array of community advocates who showed up at the May 18 joint hearing, there were maybe five citizens who spoke about encounters with the FBI, and only one from the Bay Area. ”My goal is to make everyone feel comfortable,” he said.
But HRC Chair Sweet acknowledged at the May 18 joint hearing that it was “very difficult” to know from a first reading of Suhr’s Bureau Order if it fully addressed the community’s intelligence-gathering concerns. “I think a great deal of discussion really needs to take place on that particular issue,” he said.
And HRC Vice Chair Douglas Chan dug into the details, starting with the apparently now classified question of how many SFPD officers are currently assigned as deputized FBI officers.
”We don't generally discuss the specific numbers, but I will tell that you we've never had less than two officers assigned to the JTTF,” Suhr replied.
And he told Chan more work can be done on the Bureau Order.
“The intent of the order was to align it with DGO 8.10 and to close any gap that was in the 2007 MOU,” Suhr said.
Chan asked if SFPD has in mind “ a framework or an approach” if a case arises, wherein an officer, in order to defend himself against an allegation of misconduct, or a citizen seeking to discover facts and other evidence relating to an incident, bumps up against this need to know and the fact that apparently JTTF activities are, “under a federal classified information.”
“I think that would probably need to be flushed out in subsequent drafts of the bureau order,” Suhr replied. “I think we could turn the clock back to where the officers are ultimately accountable to the police department, the commission and the citizens of San Francisco. I think that the most recent MOU, as has been discussed, there was somehow a mishap where it was not reviewed.”
And while Police Commissioner Petra DeJesus said Suhr’s Bureau Order was, “a step in the right direction,” she added that she felt it needs to be amended to clarify how the Police Commission would truly have oversight of SFPD officers’ JTTF activities.
‘Even though a commissioner is going to look at what's been done monthly, that commissioner doesn't have the clearance, and we'd only see a sanitized version of the events,” she observed. “And we need to look at the auditing report part of it.”
And Police Commissioner R. James Slaughter said he thought everyone was “frustrated that the FBI is not here to answer some of these questions." I think that would help us.”
And now, with four candidates vying to replace Jim Marshall as the seventh Police Commissioner, it’s not clear what the Police Commission will do beyond Suhr’s Bureau Order. But clearly that question now becomes part of the commission selection process.
And so here is the basic direction of Suhr’s new Bureau Order:
Under Suhr’s new Bureau Order (not to be confused with an FBI order) SFPD officers assigned to the FBI's terrorism task force must abide by local policies protecting civil rights rather than looser federal rules.
“It is the responsibility of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to prevent, investigate and respond to terrorism in the United States.” Suhr’s May 18 order states. “The FBI has established local Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) to share resources and coordinate among federal, state, tribal and local governments. It is the policy of the [San Francisco Police] Department to help prevent and investigate acts of terrorism, protect civil rights and civil libertes under United States and California law, and promote San Francisco as an open and inclusive community by participating in the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.”
“The Chief may assign SFPD offices to work on JTTF investigations that comply with the requirements stated above regardless of whether or not the investigation is based in the City & County of San Francisco,” Suhr’s order, which was issued by Deputy Chief Kevin Cashman, continued.
“SFPD offices shall work with the JTTF only on investigations of suspected terrorism that have a criminal nexus,” Suhr’s Bureau Order concludes. “In situations where the statutory law of California is more restrictive of law enforcement than comparable federal law, the investigative methods employed by SFPD officers working on JTTF investigations shall conform to the requirements of such California statutes. While cross-designated and deputized as federal officers for the purposes of their JTTF assignments, when not operating in a covert or undercover capacity, SFPD officers shall always identify themselves to members of the public as SFPD officers.”
Or as Suhr told commissioners May 18, “Our officers will follow our department orders.”