End the nightlife crackdown

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Harassing parties and clubs shouldn't be a priority for a cash-strapped city's police department

EDITORIAL Police Chief George Gascón has asked for more authority to crack down on rogue cops, and has vowed to clean up the small handful of bad actors who are giving the department an ugly reputation for violence and abuse. But before San Franciscans are going to trust the chief, he's got to show some evidence that he's serious — and cleaning up the mess that is Southern Station's crackdown on nightlife would be a great place to start.

As Rebecca Bowe and Steven T. Jones report in this issue, the SFPD seems to be waging war on parties, clubs, and events, particularly in the SoMa area. And it's not pretty. Undercover cops sneak into events then call in the troops, who make multiple dubious arrests and, according to widespread accounts, seize or destroy laptops and other DJ equipment and beat up and abuse participants.

It's a pointless waste of law enforcement resources. In a city where a significant number of murders remain unsolved, where merchants complain about street-level crimes that could easily be addressed by foot patrols, and where the chief complains that he lacks the funds to address all the problems he's facing, we can't fathom why stopping nightlife is a top police priority. At the very worst, some participants and promoters might be guilty of holding an event without the proper permits — but nobody's getting robbed, assaulted, or killed.

And the tactics used by the officers are needlessly violent, sometimes brutal. According to lawsuits and eyewitness accounts, SFPD officers have smashed laptops, kicked and beaten partygoers, and arrested people with little cause. A San Francisco lawyer is preparing to file a RICO Act lawsuit against the city, charging that the police are conspiring with state liquor-control officials to harass people engaged in lawful activity.

The policy directives behind this appear to come from Cdr. James Dudley, the former captain of Southern Station, and the officer most directly responsible for the crackdown is Larry Bertrand. Paired with an officer from the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, Bertrand attends parties in plain clothes, sometimes dressed as a raver.

Complaints about Bertrand and the crackdowns are piling up. We've been writing about it for months. SF Weekly picked up the story last week. There are complaints filed with the city's Office of Citizen Complaints and lawsuits pending. The chief may not have known about the problems at the crime lab, but he has to be aware of what Bertrand is up to.

Gascón should direct Dudley and Bertrand to back off — to halt the undercover work, end the seizure of personal property such as laptops and DJ gear (it's not a crime to own a computer or speaker system), and work with the clubs and the nightlife community to devise reasonable systems for dealing with permit issues. And he needs to do it publicly, to let San Franciscans know that he's addressing the issue.

Mayor Gavin Newsom needs to get involved too, and make a clear public statement that harassing parties and clubs isn't the top priority for a cash-strapped city's police department.

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