SF Police Chief Orders Cops to Follow Local, Not FBI, Guidelines

SF Police Chief Orders Cops to Follow Local, Not FBI, Guidelines

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Speaking at a special joint meeting of the San Francisco Police Commission and the Human Rights Commission on Wednesday evening, Police Chief Gregory Suhr issued an order intended to clarify the partnership between the San Francisco Police Department and the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Suhr’s order instructs San Francisco police officers deputized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to identify themselves as city officers and comply with local laws, rather than FBI regulations that contain less restrictive mandates for conducting investigations.

Police Commission President Thomas Mazzucco, who was at the meeting, praised Suhr’s order. “We have now made that clear. Our officers follow our department general orders. We follow our San Francisco values. The chief gets a lot of credit,” he said.

The chief’s announcement came in response to concerns raised by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and several civil rights groups that believe San Francisco police officers may have been profiling Middle Eastern and South Asian citizens – in violation of San Francisco law -- while participating in FBI investigations.

The issue was first raised publicly at a Human Rights Commission hearing in September, but was elevated last month when civil rights groups obtained a copy of a secret 2007 agreement between the SFPD and the FBI, after filing a Freedom of Information Act request. The agreement between the two agencies was brokered during the administration of former San Francisco Police Chief Heather Fong.

“Unfortunately, our suspicions and concerns were confirmed,” said John Crew, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Particularly at issue is the FBI’s authority to investigate individuals without having reasonable suspicion that they have committed a crime, a minimum standard required of San Francisco police officers. The Human Rights Commission also raised questions concerning oversight, as police offers deputized by the FBI may not have the authority to discuss details of classified cases with their SFPD supervisors.

Illustrating these concerns, Asian Law Caucus attorney Veena Dubal presented the case of Yasir Afifi, an Arab-American student in San Jose who discovered a tracking device that had been placed on his car during a Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation. Dubal said that several days after Afifi discovered the device, FBI agents demanded that Afifi return it, telling him, “Don’t worry, you’re boring.”

“The message this kind of activity sends is that the FBI considers certain communities more suspect and less American than others,” Dubal said. “The practice alienates communities and strains law enforcement relationships. The San Francisco Police Department cannot afford to participate in these practices.”

The San Francisco Police Department has had at least two officers—the exact number is classified—working with the Joint Terrorism Task Force since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

While the Human Rights Commission and present civil rights groups praised Suhr’s swift order—he has been in his post less than a month—Dubal said that the FBI special agent in charge, who was not present, had told her that in accordance with the 2007 agreement, the FBI would not be obliged to follow the SFPD order and would continue to override local policy.

Crew also questioned whether the order was a sufficient safeguard. “As a bureau order, it can be changed at any time without the notice of the police commission, without a public hearing, and I think that this is an issue that has to be dealt with at the police commission level,” said Crew, adding that a permanent solution would be for the police commission to pass a resolution adopting the police chief’s order, a move the FBI has indicated it would follow.

The tone of the meeting was cordial but direct, between the two commissions, the police chief and approximately 75 members of the public in attendance.

Further discussions between the parties will continue.

“I think the dialogue has to continue,” said Human Rights Commission Chairman Michael Sweet. “The way a city like this can succeed and folks can work together collaboratively is a testament to the people who work here who want to have a dialogue. I expect it to continue for many months.”