SFPD's expensive Robbery Abatement Team stings don't always snag the thieves they're out to get
Things are not always as they seem. That's a lesson Matthew Martinez and Thad Conley learned the hard way — each of them after becoming unwitting targets of San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) sting operations that landed them in San Francisco County Jail, bewildered.
It was early October of 2010, and Martinez had just finished his shift as a chef at a San Francisco restaurant and was headed home when he encountered a man who seemed very intoxicated, near Eighth and Mission streets. The man asked him for a cigarette, so Martinez handed him one.
But then the man gestured to his chest, a move Martinez later explained he interpreted as an invitation to take one of the crumpled dollar bills that was spilling out of the disheveled drunk's pocket, as payment for the cigarette. Martinez testified in court that he took one dollar, but tucked the other bills safely back into the hapless individual's pocket.
As soon as Martinez had the bill in his hand, he was surrounded. Not only was the man who'd wanted a cigarette not drunk, he was a police officer. One of eight police officers. The undercover officer gave an arrest signal, and seven cops who had quietly been standing ready closed in, placing the 28-year-old chef under arrest.
The cops had been staked out on the street for a sting operation as part of SFPD's Robbery Abatement Team (RAT), a controversial unit that has drawn criticism from the San Francisco Public Defender's Office for targeting some of the city's poorest neighborhoods for busts, using cash as bait and sometimes snagging people with no prior criminal records.
Some of the same officers engaged in RAT stings have come under investigation for alleged misconduct in connection with a string of incidents at single room occupancy (SRO) hotels, publicized in a series of surveillance videos aired at press conferences earlier this year by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi.
"RAT ... is used citywide as an effective tool to prevent robberies of innocent victims," SFPD spokesperson Albie Esparza told the Guardian. "The Police Department uses this operation to catch people that are preying on the vulnerable. The theory is, you catch these people and get them off the street to prevent more robberies or more serious crimes from occurring, thus providing a safer neighborhood. Over 50 percent of the suspects arrested in RAT operations have a history of robbery or theft and a majority are on parole or probation."
Esparza confirmed that some of the officers have been pulled from RAT duties. "Some of the officers that participated in the RAT operations are not actively working in that capacity due to the SRO/Henry Hotel investigations," he said, referring to the alleged misconduct cases.
A couple months before Martinez's ill-fated encounter with the man who he thought wanted to buy a cigarette, Conley was visiting San Francisco from Cincinnati to see friends and attend the Outside Lands music festival when he noticed something strange. Some women had made a show of leaving a car parked, with the doors open and engine still running, in the bus zone near the McDonald's at Haight and Stanyan streets.
As they climbed into a cab, they spoke as if they were pulling a stunt to get back at a guy. According to Corey Farris, a public defender who represented Conley, he took it upon himself to move the car to a safe place. He first pulled it into the McDonald's lot, but after someone informed him it would only get towed if he left it there, Farris says, Conley drove the car to a nearby police station.
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."
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.
Just 35 percent of the cases were charged as misdemeanors, and the rest as felonies, according to the tally. "If it's charged as a robbery, it counts as a strike offense," points out Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney of the Public Defender's Office. He'd like to know whether the program will continue under the direction of newly installed Police Chief Greg Suhr, particularly since some of the officers have been pulled from RAT operations in the wake of the SRO scandal, but SFPD has not made any indications that it will reevaluate the practice.
While the busts may be catching criminals who would be taking advantage of vulnerable residents, Gonzalez and Dunlap question the tactic of manufacturing crime, saying it's an expensive operation that isn't the best use of public resources. Dunlap likens it to a fishing expedition with an incredibly shallow reach. "They're creating a different situation than they're trying to abate," he says. "There's something distasteful about going into the poorest neighborhoods and fishing with money."