On the hook

SFPD's expensive war on small-time druggies

Addicts are often busted for selling drugs after undercover cops offer many times the street value for small amounts


Unique Roberts squared back her shoulders and recalled what it was like when she first moved to San Francisco from East Oakland more than a decade ago. A tall, 33-year-old African American transgender woman with piercing eyes and a charming smile despite gaps of missing teeth, Roberts said she performed as a showgirl at clubs like Harvey's and the Pendulum in the Castro. In those exciting days, "I fell in love with this boy, and he was an addict," she explained. "I thought that if I did it, it would keep our relationship together."

She recalled how awful her boyfriend felt when he found out she was using, telling her, "You don't know what you're doing to yourself." He departed for Texas several years later, but addiction stuck with her as a way of life.

She says she's tried to kick the habit, but it's wrapped up in a battle against depression stemming from the loss of loved ones. Roberts was wearing one of the bright orange sweatshirts issued to inmates at San Francisco County Jail. She landed there after being arrested in April for allegedly selling a tiny rock of crack, weighing just 9/100s of a gram, to an undercover narcotics officer. According to the police report, the cop offered her $20 for it — but based on National Drug Intelligence Center street-value estimates, that amount is only worth about $2.50.

Roberts may go by the first name Unique, but her lawyer Tal Klement, who works for the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, is fond of saying her case is hardly unique at all. She was one of several people arrested in the Tenderloin that day after interacting with the same plainclothes officer.

It was part of a coordinated sweep known as a buy-bust, a common practice under which an officer may pose as a homeless person, a clueless outsider, or a dope-sick fiend to lure people into selling crack, pills, meth, heroin, or marijuana. Once a transaction is made, a team of officers awaiting the signal immediately closes in and arrests the seller.

As of June 20, there were at least 109 open buy-bust cases in San Francisco. Based on defendants' rap sheets, 92 percent had prior drug-use histories, according to a tally conducted by the Public Defender's Office.

The officers posing as buyers — who often earn overtime — use street lingo, know which drugs can be obtained at which intersections, and sometimes offer higher prices than the accepted street value. Attorney Anne Irwin, also a public defender, is critical of the practice, saying it's an expensive tactic that's makes for easy arrests — because the money is irresistible to addicts who think they're getting an opportunity to convert a personal stash into more drugs.

In a lean budget year, "they're cutting social services left and right, and these are the very services that could help the addicts get off the street," Irwin noted. She's skeptical that the strategy stems the flow of substantial quantities of drugs.

Police Chief Greg Suhr, who said he participated in buy-busts for years as a narcotics officer, credits the tactic for helping to eradicate a rampant open-air drug market on Third Street in the Bayview, and says it can help prevent drug-related violence.

Klement, however, condemns it as a "war on crumbs," saying it ensnares far more addicts than serious dealers and often ends up unnecessarily pinning felony convictions onto low-level offenders.