Community Leaders Call for Transparency in SFPD-FBI Collaboration

Supervisor Jane Kim

Arab American, Muslim and South Asian community leaders are urging Mayor Ed Lee to approve an ordinance that they believe could re-establish trust between their communities and the San Francisco Police Department.

Last week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors narrowly passed the Safe San Francisco Civil Rights Ordinance, intended to prevent civil rights abuses in SFPD-FBI collaboration. The measure, proposed by Supervisor Jane Kim and supported by about 80 civil rights, legal and community groups, aims to increase transparency and restore local control over the actions of San Francisco police officers operating as members of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). 

The ordinance is up for a final Board of Supervisors vote this week, and if it passes, it will head to the desk of Mayor Ed Lee. 

Lee, however, said he would follow the recommendations of Police Chief Greg Suhr, who has publicly expressed his disapproval of the ordinance. 

Community leaders are hoping that Lee, who has a long history of advocating for civil rights, will take their concerns into consideration when making his decision.

“These issues are not new to him,” said Nasrina Bargzie, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, where the mayor used to work, “and we hope that we will have the opportunity to discuss them with him.”

Lily Haskell, program director at the Arab Resource and Organizing Committee, added, “Instead of looking to testimony about harassment and racial profiling, he is strictly looking to the police chief. We understand that he needs to take police protocol into account, but we believe it’s equally important to listen to community experiences with FBI intimidation and to make a decision out of those experiences.”

Civil rights advocates argue that this ordinance is necessary to repair and restore trust between community members and law enforcement. 

“The American Muslim community has a difficult time trusting law enforcement in light of what various agencies, most recently the NYPD, have been doing to their friends, neighbors, and religious leaders,” said Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in the Bay Area. 

CAIR has heard complaints in San Francisco from individuals who were visited by law enforcement agents and questioned about activity that did not appear to be criminal, such as their religious and political beliefs, Billoo said. The ordinance, she said, would “build a layer of protection and accountability at the local level to ensure that San Francisco police officers aren’t engaging in this problematic behavior.”

Thus far, more than 500 people have contacted the Mayor’s office asking him to approve the legislation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California. Bargzie of the Asian Law Caucus said more than 50 people showed up to the Board of Supervisors’ vote last week. 

But community leaders were disappointed that last week’s vote was so close: the Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance in a 6-5 vote. 

Supervisor Cohen, who voted against the ordinance, said she had concerns that it could prevent the SFPD from accessing necessary intelligence information, and pointed out that because existing police departmental guidelines protect the interests of all San Franciscans, there was no need for duplicative legislation. 

“I feel more comfortable making it a resolution, particularly when we already have in existence the general order,” said Cohen.

However, advocates said the current guidelines conflict with the 2007 agreement between the FBI and SFPD, creating confusion about which should be followed.

The agreement between the SFPD and the FBI states that when police officers are assigned to participate in the JTTF, they are under the control of the FBI’s rules, and are not held accountable to the same civilian oversight measures as the SFPD. The general order issued by the police chief in May 2011 attempted to address this by stipulating that those officers must report to the police department and are subject to oversight from the Office of Civilian Complaints. 

But community leaders worry that this order could order easily be reversed by the next police chief.

Unlike the police chief’s order, an ordinance approved by the Board of Supervisor s and signed by the mayor would be binding. “An ordinance can’t just be changed when the police chief changes,” Billoo explained.

The Safe San Francisco Civil Rights Ordinance would require that any police officers participating in the JTTF must act in a way that is consistent with state, not federal, constitutional privacy standards, and avoid profiling. Any investigations into First Amendment activities (such as a person's religious or political beliefs) must be based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, subject to civilian oversight through the Police Commission and Office of Civilian Complaints, and authorized in writing by the chief of police. 

The ordinance would only apply to future agreements between the SFPD and FBI. (A clause recommending that the current memorandum of understanding between the FBI and the SFPD be terminated was removed from the ordinance before it went up for a vote.)

If approved, the next time a memorandum of understanding comes down the pipeline from the FBI -- which advocates expect to happen soon -- it would be subject to civilian oversight and accountability.

“In the end, civil rights are protected by laws, not by vague assurances,” noted John Crew, police practices specialist with the ACLU of Northern California.

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, whose lead the mayor is likely to follow, has expressed concern that if the ordinance passes, the SFPD will have to opt out of participating in the JTTF entirely -- a resource he considers to be extremely valuable in intelligence gathering. 

According to Sergeant Michael Andraychak, “The SFPD obtained over 200 tips/items of information from the JTTF on criminal activity NOT related to First Amendment [activity] and the SFPD conducts investigations accordingly.” 

But advocates note that a similar resolution that passed in Portland, Ore. – which the San Francisco ordinance is modeled after – did not stop police from working with the FBI. Portland continues to work with the JTTF after the city restored local control and transparency to its police officers participating in the task force. 

In a Feb. 28 memo to the Portland City Council, Portland Police Chief Mike Reese explained how this worked. In order to provide proper oversight, he said, the Portland Criminal Investigations Unit Lieutenant is involved in the day-to-day management of the activities of the Portland police officers participating in the JTTF. Reese also continues to receive regular briefings on the work of the JTTF and attends JTTF Executive Committee meetings. 

“I’ll be interested in hearing specifically what the [San Francisco police] chief thinks is being given up by going that route [passing the ordinance],” added Crew of the ACLU of Northern California. “We know what we’re giving up – we’re giving up direct control, all civilian oversight.” 

Police Chief Suhr has agreed to meet with community leaders to discuss the ordinance.