SFPD's expensive war on small-time druggies
Buy-busts usually involve around eight officers, according to an average calculated by the Public Defender's Office based on open cases, but have involved as many as 14 and as few as three. There's the decoy buyer, who sometimes dresses in grimy sweatpants, goes without shaving, or dirties his face to look like a street addict in desperate need of a fix. There's a "close cover" officer who follows the decoy, plus an arrest team that is also sometimes in plainclothes. Beforehand, officers will photocopy cash — usually $20 bills — to document the serial numbers so that the same marked city funds can be used as evidence once recovered from arrestees. Busts can happen within minutes of one another, and a single shift may net five or six arrests.
Irwin says the people snared aren't typical drug dealers — certainly not big-time players. But they're charged as dealers — and in many cases wind up branded as felons, with severe legal penalties such as multiyear prison sentences.
While the police department is able to show on paper that it's brought hundreds of drug dealers into custody — and the district attorney can point to a boost in the conviction rate thanks to the program's efficiency — Irwin says the amounts being peddled are tiny.
"In traditional narcotics operations, they cultivated snitches, used surveillance, and obtained search warrants" to go after major dealers, Irwin said. With buy-busts, "It's like shooting fish in a barrel. Everyone agrees that we need cops on the streets to help keep us safe ... But do we want to be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for this?"
Sharon Woo, chief assistant of operations for the San Francisco District Attorney, told the Guardian that "we charge based on the conduct of the individual." Woo went on to say that the DA tried to "exercise appropriate discretion" on a case-by-case basis when individuals are selling to support an addiction or due to being in dire financial straits.
Sometimes individuals are ushered into alternative programs such as drug court or a Back on Track program for first-time offenders, Woo said. And while the DA typically includes charges that make defendants ineligible for probation under state law if they have prior convictions for selling crack-cocaine — a discretionary practice that has drawn criticism from public defenders — Woo observed that "it doesn't mean that's how cases resolve."
Police forces in nearly every major metropolitan area practice buy-busts, said Frank Zimring, a law professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law specializing in criminal justice issues. Yet he described the practice as costly and noted that paying overtime for it "makes what would ordinarily be a very expensive operation into a more expensive operation."
Cost estimates for the entire program are tough to pin down. It costs $130 per day to house each prisoner in the county jail, amounting to more than $14,000 per day if all of the defendants with pending cases are in custody. If an average of eight officers per bust were paid $60 an hour each to spend six hours conducting a buy-bust, the current caseload represents more than $300,000 in officer pay — a conservative estimate — and that's before lawyers in the offices of the public defender and district attorney are paid to prosecute and defend the suspects in court.
But no matter how you add it up, it's a lot of money.
Suhr told the Guardian that apprehending street-level offenders occasionally leads officers to bigger fish. "Sometimes you get a low-level person, or a buyer if you will ... if that same person would say, 'But I know this guy and he has guns and he's a big dealer and whatever.' That is a good way to get to those bigger people."
"We've never seen that happen in practice," Klement countered.