Supervisors ban illegal SFPD spying, but veto threat looms

Sup. Jane Kim addresses activists who support a ban on SFPD participation in FBI surveillance that violates state and local laws
Steven T. Jones

The Board of Supervisors today gave initial approval to legislation that would prevent the San Francisco Police Department from working with the FBI to spy on law-abiding citizens, but the 6-5 vote wouldn’t be enough to overcome a possible veto by Mayor Ed Lee, which would take eight votes.

SFPD officials have said the measure is unnecessary because Police Chief Greg Suhr and the Police Commission last year approved a Department General Order requiring officers to obey state and local privacy laws, which they say supercedes the MOU that the SFPD secretly signed with the FBI in 2007 placing local officers under federal control. That secret document was unearthed last year by the ACLU, causing a local furor.

But supervisors who support the measure and the broad coalition that is supporting it, ranging from the Asian Law Caucus to groups representing Muslims who have been targeted with federal surveillance since 9/11, say it is important to enshrine these protections in city law and they don’t understand the SFPD resistance to doing so.

“If this is that important to us, if we believe in these values, then it deserves to be codified in our laws,” said Sup. Jane Kim, the measure’s main sponsor. “I was shocked to discover our city entered into a secret agreement with the FBI,” said President David Chiu, adding that while he trusts Suhr to oppose illegal spying, this legislation was about ensuring successive chiefs and members of the Police Commission uphold that standard.

Sups. Scott Wiener, Malia Cohen, Sean Elsbernd, Mark Farrell, and Carmen Chu voted against the measure, but Wiener was the only one who tried to explain his vote, much to the disappointment of the large coalition that showed up to support the legislation.

“This has been a tough issue for me and I’ve struggled with it,” Wiener said, sharing Chiu’s outrage over the secret memo and his position on the government spying on citizens who aren’t suspected of a crime. “We have our own local policies that SFPD officers are required to comply with,” Wiener said. “The question for me is whether this needs to be legislated.”

The legislation is set to receive final approval at next week's board meeting, after which Mayor Lee will have 10 days to sign it or issue the second veto of his run as mayor (the first, also controversial, was over legislation to close a loophole in the Health Care Security Ordinance that allows businesses to at the end of the year raid employee health savings accounts they set up to comply with city law requiring employee health coverage).

Before the vote, as he was leaving his monthly Question Time session with the board, I asked Lee about his position on the SFPD spying measure and he said, “I’ll be getting an update. The chief who I appointed has been working directly with the supervisor on this and he’ll be reporting to me all his efforts soon so I can make a determination. I’d like to have input for our Police Commission as well before announcing what we’re going to do about it.”

After the vote, I asked Kim about the threat of a veto and she said, “It’s definitely a concern and we as a community need to think about what our next steps are.” Activists said they plan to lobby supervisors who opposed the measure and the Mayor’s Office. “Talk to your communities, let them know the supervisors who supported it and the supervisors who didn’t support it,” Fairuz Abdullah, former president of the Bay Area Association of Muslim Lawyers, told the group of about two dozen. “This is a great showing, but it needs to continue.”