Pointless waste at SFPD

Entrapment shouldn't be a line item on police force budget

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EDITORIAL So you're sitting in a doorway, filling a bowl from the dregs of what was once an eighth of (perhaps nonmedical) bud, and some guy comes up an offers you $20 for what's left in the little plastic bag. Maybe you're unemployed, or maybe just a bit short of cash, but either way, it's a no-brainer: For $20, you can some more pot. If the guy's that desperate, and he's waving the cash in front of you, what are you going to do?

So you take his money and give him the bag — and next thing you know, a half-dozen cops are surrounding you. You're knocked to the sidewalk, cuffed and arrested — for selling drugs. And although the amount may be miniscule, the charges aren't; selling drugs, any amount of drugs, can land you in the county jail.

As Rebecca Bowe reported June 21, this is how a sizable number of San Francisco police officers are spending their time these days. The so-called buy-bust operations involve an average of eight officers, working in teams. One poses as a desperate buyer, approaching not just people who are clearly dealers but anyone who might be in possession of illegal narcotics. He offers cash — often far more than the street value of the drugs — to entice a sale. Then after a pre-arranged signal, the team charges in, arresting the seller.

The bills carried by the decoys are photocopied in advance to make it easier to prove that the money in the seller's pocket came from the supposed drug buyer.

Bowe reports in this issue that another team of cops has been using another similar scheme: A hapless-looking undercover officer, often appearing drunk, will wander around a low-income neighborhood with cash hanging out of his pockets, enticing someone to try to rob him. The Robbery Abatement Team (RAT) sometimes nabs people with no prior criminal records.

Police Chief Greg Suhr supports the programs, saying that the buy-bust teams discourage open-air drug dealing. But the Public Defender's Office is dubious: Most of the people who wind up snared in these nets are not big-time drug dealers or hard-core criminals. And while many of the cases are dismissed (and some of the suspects wind up winning in court), the practice is using substantial amounts of police time and public resources — at a time when the police department claims it lacks the cash for more effective neighborhood foot patrols.

Both schemes are very, very close to entrapment — and even if the courts have allowed the undercover operations to continue, they make little sense as public policy. As Deputy Public Defender Bob Dunlap notes, "There's something distasteful about going into the poorest neighborhoods and fishing with money." And it's expensive — as many as 14 officers can be involved in a single buy-bust or RAT patrol. Some of the officers are working overtime, collecting money the department doesn't have. Since most of the people who get arrested are too poor to afford lawyers, the public defender has to put resources into defending the cases. The courts — which are so strapped for cash that civil cases aren't even getting heard these days — have to take the time to sort out the charges. And the taxpayers have to fork over money to keep people who in many cases aren't a threat to public safety in jail.

Suhr ought to shut down the two programs — and if he doesn't, the supervisors should hold hearings, demand an audit of the cost of the undercover operations and make that a factor in the next police department budget.