SFPD's expensive war on small-time druggies
One of Irwin's clients, a homeless man, was charged with selling narcotics after he scraped out the contents of his pipe to sell 1/1,000th of a gram of crack to an undercover officer for $20. In a rare twist, the case was ultimately settled on a misdemeanor possession of narcotics.
Inspector Robert Doss, who served as the decoy in that case, has earned substantial amounts of overtime while going undercover to buy drugs, according to a court transcript. In 2009 Doss earned $35,488 in combined overtime and "other pay," which includes time spent testifying in court, according to a San Francisco Chronicle database of municipal salaries.
ON THE STREET, OFF THE STREET
The Tenderloin is frequently targeted for buy-busts, with 65 percent of open cases as of June 13 having taken place in that neighborhood. The Haight ranked second, with nearly 12 percent of cases, and the Mission followed with 10 percent. Shortly after District Attorney George Gascón was sworn into his prior post as police chief in 2009, he announced a concerted effort to clean up the Tenderloin, and Klement maintains he's seen a surge in cases stemming from buy-busts there ever since.
Drug dealing in the Tenderloin often makes the news as a source of frustration to merchants and residents. "You try and explain to the people of San Francisco that it's okay for people to have open-air drug markets right in front of their stores," Suhr said.
Yet Klement maintains that what is essentially a quality-of-life crime should not be treated as a felony. "There's a lot of pressure from people who are invested in businesses [in the Tenderloin] who would love to see that neighborhood become the next Hayes Valley," he said. "But what they don't realize is that people are paying with prison for that agenda."
Once someone has been labeled a drug dealer in the eyes of the law, he said, it becomes more difficult for them to access drug treatment — not to mention get a job, qualify for a student loan, or find housing.
Roberts' case nearly went to trial. If convicted, she could have been sent to prison for a minimum of three and a maximum of 17 years due to extra penalties from prior convictions. On the eve of the trial, however, the case was settled on a possession charge for a year in jail, a rare outcome. Klement was hoping to have her placed in a treatment program.
Asked if she knew of others swept up in undercover operations, Roberts gave a wry chuckle and gestured to the jail corridor behind her, indicating that nearly everyone there had been taken down in similar fashion. Klement noted that the targets of the buy-busts are almost exclusively people of color, saying, "You walk into the holding cell and you think you're in Alabama or Mississippi, not San Francisco."
In an editorial on the subject that he wrote a couple years ago, Klement noted that by contrast, predominantly white middle class people with a fondness for illegal drugs are rarely targeted because they aren't the ones selling drugs on the street. "The hard truth is that the police ignore most of the middle class drug use and dealing occurring out of private homes in every neighborhood or other public venues in the city — bars, nightclubs, concert halls. More drugs are being transported to Burning Man as we speak than will probably be seized during Gascón's entire crackdown."
For Klement, it's just another symptom of a broken system. "A lot of these people are repeat players because we don't have the right interventions at the right time," he said. "We don't understand addiction."