Caught in a RAT trap

SFPD's expensive Robbery Abatement Team stings don't always snag the thieves they're out to get

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rebeccab@sfbg.com

Things are not always as they seem. That's a lesson Matthew Martinez and Thad Conley learned the hard way — each of them after becoming unwitting targets of San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) sting operations that landed them in San Francisco County Jail, bewildered.

It was early October of 2010, and Martinez had just finished his shift as a chef at a San Francisco restaurant and was headed home when he encountered a man who seemed very intoxicated, near Eighth and Mission streets. The man asked him for a cigarette, so Martinez handed him one.

But then the man gestured to his chest, a move Martinez later explained he interpreted as an invitation to take one of the crumpled dollar bills that was spilling out of the disheveled drunk's pocket, as payment for the cigarette. Martinez testified in court that he took one dollar, but tucked the other bills safely back into the hapless individual's pocket.

As soon as Martinez had the bill in his hand, he was surrounded. Not only was the man who'd wanted a cigarette not drunk, he was a police officer. One of eight police officers. The undercover officer gave an arrest signal, and seven cops who had quietly been standing ready closed in, placing the 28-year-old chef under arrest.

 

TAKING THE BAIT

The cops had been staked out on the street for a sting operation as part of SFPD's Robbery Abatement Team (RAT), a controversial unit that has drawn criticism from the San Francisco Public Defender's Office for targeting some of the city's poorest neighborhoods for busts, using cash as bait and sometimes snagging people with no prior criminal records.

Some of the same officers engaged in RAT stings have come under investigation for alleged misconduct in connection with a string of incidents at single room occupancy (SRO) hotels, publicized in a series of surveillance videos aired at press conferences earlier this year by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

"RAT ... is used citywide as an effective tool to prevent robberies of innocent victims," SFPD spokesperson Albie Esparza told the Guardian. "The Police Department uses this operation to catch people that are preying on the vulnerable. The theory is, you catch these people and get them off the street to prevent more robberies or more serious crimes from occurring, thus providing a safer neighborhood. Over 50 percent of the suspects arrested in RAT operations have a history of robbery or theft and a majority are on parole or probation."

Esparza confirmed that some of the officers have been pulled from RAT duties. "Some of the officers that participated in the RAT operations are not actively working in that capacity due to the SRO/Henry Hotel investigations," he said, referring to the alleged misconduct cases.

A couple months before Martinez's ill-fated encounter with the man who he thought wanted to buy a cigarette, Conley was visiting San Francisco from Cincinnati to see friends and attend the Outside Lands music festival when he noticed something strange. Some women had made a show of leaving a car parked, with the doors open and engine still running, in the bus zone near the McDonald's at Haight and Stanyan streets.

As they climbed into a cab, they spoke as if they were pulling a stunt to get back at a guy. According to Corey Farris, a public defender who represented Conley, he took it upon himself to move the car to a safe place. He first pulled it into the McDonald's lot, but after someone informed him it would only get towed if he left it there, Farris says, Conley drove the car to a nearby police station.

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