- This Week
Party people, watch out: undercover cop Larry Bertrand has declared war on San Francisco nightlife
Guardian illustration of Larry Bertrand by Joel Kimmel
Nevertheless, even Chief Gascón agrees that it's not okay to destroy someone's personal property. "If in fact the allegations were proven to be the case that an officer took somebody's laptop and threw it down the stairs," Gascón told us, "that would be inappropriate, and that officer would be sanctioned accordingly." He noted that he met with an attorney from the Electronic Frontier Foundation about a recurring trend of officers — Bertrand in particular — seizing DJ laptops at underground parties. "We've met with them and we've agreed to actually tighten up the protocols in how this would be handled," Gascón noted.
A RICO SUIT
The list of local nightclub clubs that have been recently targeted by Bertrand and Ott or subjected to ABC sanctions is long. It includes Great American Music Hall, Slim's, DNA Lounge, Mist, Whisper, the Room, Vessel, Azul, Butter, and Club Caliente (which closed down after its mostly Latino customers were scared away by repeated raids).
"Using the now familiar pattern and ruse of ABC authority, these raids have been without warrant and without probable cause, under the pretext of finding liquor violations," attorney Mark Webb wrote in a claim against the city, describing the harassment of Caliente owner Maurice Salinas and later adding, "Despite numerous raids, the invading officers [Bertrand and Ott] managed to 'uncover' a single infraction: one customer used his brother's ID card, claiming he was over 21 to gain entry. For this reason, Mr. Salinas was cited and fined, bullied, intimidated, and yelled at on the spot."
Webb said such behavior isn't legitimate police work, but unlawful harassment. In fact, this experienced litigator said it's far closer to the shakedowns and extortion rackets familiar to him from the start of his legal career in the late 1970s prosecuting organized crime cases in New York City.
That's why he's threatening to bring a novel lawsuit against the city and ABC under federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act, a law designed go after the mob, but which has since been adapted to target entities ranging from the tobacco industry to the Los Angeles Police Department.
Webb told us that interference with legitimate business operations, such as running a nightclub, is the essence of RICO suits. As part of the case, Webb plans to submit a surveillance video that shows Bertrand kneeling on the neck of bartender Javier Magallon from The Room and twisting his arm. Webb gave us a copy of the video.
Another element of making a RICO case is the use of intimidation and retaliation against those who complain — which was central to a March 17 SF Weekly story about promoter Arash Ghanadan being inappropriately singled out for arrest by Bertrand as retaliation for filing a complaint against the officer with the Office of Citizen Complaints.
Webb says he has a strong case that he intends to file soon, but that most of his clients just want the SFPD to rein in Bertrand and stop facilitating ABC actions. "I want to have a sit-down with Gavin Newsom," Webb said. "I am calling on Mayor Newsom to come in and mediate what would be an expensive, divisive fight that will generate national interest ... I think this thing can go way quickly without litigation."
Newsom press secretary Tony Winnicker, who said Newsom has brought concerns about Bertrand to the chief's attention, didn't immediately embrace Webb's offer. "The mayor would rather leave it to the chief," Winnicker said.
So the question for Gascón is whether he's willing to take on the cowboy cops within the SFPD's ranks. After all, Bertrand is also on the San Francisco Police Officers Association Board of Directors.