SFPD won't allow public oversight of its surveillance work with the FBI, despite high-profile legislation requiring it
A high-profile local civil rights ordinance passed last year to shine light on the San Francisco Police Department's joint activities with the FBI has been undermined by the SFPD's refusal to disclose its surveillance activities. This comes at a time when the public is learning more than ever about the federal government's intrusion into the privacy of law-abiding US citizens.
In May 2012, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the Safe San Francisco Civil Rights Ordinance, which Mayor Ed Lee signed in a photo-op ceremony with Police Chief Greg Suhr and the activists who supported it. They claimed the board's passage of the ordinance ushered in a new era of transparency over the SFPD's previously secretive work with the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force.
"The ordinance basically requires three things," Nasrina Bargzie, a civil rights attorney at the Asian Law Caucus who worked on the measure, told the Bay Guardian. "The first part requires that the Police Department work with the JTTF has to follow the California constitutional rights of privacy, so they're not following the lax standards of the [US] Department of Justice. The second part is that they can no longer enter into any secret agreements with the FBI; it has to go before the Police Commission in a public setting. The final part of the ordinance exists to make sure the rules are being followed, so there is a requirement for a yearly report."
At the time of its passage, activists told the Guardian that the ordinance was only as strong as the SFPD's willingness to disclose its activities (see "Mayor Lee signs watered-down limits on SFPD spying," 5/9/12). But the SFPD's refusal to disclose even minimal, basic information calls into question the ordinance's value.
After the release of multiple reports earlier this year that activists called inadequate, Suhr is now maintaining silence regarding the JTTF, while claiming the department is in full compliance with the ordinance. According to Bargzie, Suhr told her the FBI is barring him from disclosing the requested information.
Following multiple efforts by the Guardian to get a comment out of SFPD about the ordinance and whether the department was indeed taking a subservient role to the FBI, SFPD Sgt. Dennis Toomer told us, "We're not talking about that at all."
LACK OF RESPONSE
Activists have sparred with Chief Suhr over implementation of the ordinance and its required annual report since at least the beginning of 2013.
Deputy Chief John Loftus presented the first report to the Police Commission on Jan. 23, which claimed the SFPD was in "full compliance" with the ordinance without providing any details. Activists and the public quickly demanded a real response.
"The commission presented this short oral report, which was a little short of two minutes long," Bargzie told us. "There was no data that we were not already aware of. It was just basic statements claiming that they were complying with the ordinance."
Suhr apologized for the omissions while stating his department was still in compliance with the ordinance's guidelines, pledging to be more forthcoming. At this time, SFPD Sgt. Michael Andraychak told the Guardian: "The Chief's Office is in the process of scheduling meetings with Nasrina Bargzie [of the Asian Law Caucus] to develop a report with more detail so those concerned and the public can be as informed as possible. Chief Suhr is committed to remain in compliance with the ordinance."
The Coalition for Safe San Francisco, an activist group consisting of Muslim Legal Fund of America, Asian Law Caucus, and dozens of other groups, met with Suhr to discuss setting up a template for the reports.
Suhr then released a second report, which contained more relevant information, stating that SFPD officers did not act as informants in 2012 and three full-time SFPD officers were assigned to the JTTF.