Caught in a RAT trap - Page 2

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

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The car had been placed there by SFPD and KKI Productions, which produces a television show called Bait Car. The whole thing was taped, and in footage obtained by the Guardian that was shot inside a stakeout vehicle where a cop and television producer were monitoring the scene, they can be heard laughing about sexually explicit comments one of them makes about a woman who walks in front of the camera.

At one point, the unidentified undercover officer wonders out loud who would take the bait, saying, "I was kinda hoping the Latin guy would do it." Later in the video, when Conley comes into view after being apprehended by uniformed officers outside the police station where he'd parked the car, he's heard explaining to officers that he moved the car because he didn't want to see it towed.

"I read the police report," Farris said. "And the police report doesn't reference any of my client's statements whatsoever. He says, 'I'm taking it to the police station.' That just seems like a big fact to leave out when you're charging them for stealing the car."

 

TELLING IT TO THE JUDGE

That dollar Martinez said he thought was meant as payment for a smoke snowballed into an expensive and time-consuming legal problem. He was held in jail for several days, according to his attorney, Prithika Balakrishnan, a public defender.

When Martinez, who is epileptic, asked to retrieve from his backpack the medication he takes to prevent seizures, his request was denied, Balakrishnan said. Unable to access his meds, he asked if he could sleep on a lower bunk in his jail cell in case he had a seizure, and Balakrishnan says that request was denied, too. The San Francisco Sheriff's Department had not responded to a request for comment by press time.

Martinez's trial was held in December 2010 and lasted several days. The officer who had been in plainclothes posing as a drunk denied ever motioning to his chest. At the end of the whole fiasco, it took a jury less than 20 minutes to find Martinez not guilty of grand theft. Disgusted, he left San Francisco soon after.

Conley, meanwhile, flew in from Cincinnati almost a year later for his trial date — only to be told upon arrival that his case had been dismissed.

Their cases were particularly bizarre, but Martinez and Conley aren't the only ones to be targeted by undercover robbery abatement operations. A similar formula is employed in many cases, according to Deputy Public Defender Bob Dunlap, who heads up the office's Felony Unit. An average of nine officers are staked out along the street, with a decoy officer posing as an easy target.

"He'll have money crumpled up into balls in his shirt pocket," Dunlap explains. "He'll adopt the persona of someone who's extremely intoxicated." When someone tries to swipe the loose bills, the offender is immediately arrested. It's easy to prove that the suspects are guilty. The offenders will have "marked city funds" in their possession — bills that have been photocopied in advance so serial numbers can be matched for evidence.

According to a tally of cases from the Public Defender's Office, the average amount of money stolen in a RAT sting is $28, and there have been 118 cases filed with the Public Defender's Office in connection with these undercover operations since 2007. Around 46 percent of all RAT stings take place in the Tenderloin, and 68 percent of the arrestees are black, according to Public Defender statistics. Officers are sometimes paid overtime while conducting RAT operations, and they earn extra pay for court appearances as well.