Feds indict SFPD cops, alleging a drug ring and shakedowns of the poor

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San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr speaks during a news conference at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014.
AP photo by Jeff Chiu

Federal grand juries today indicted four San Francisco Police Department officers, an SFPD sergeant, and a former SFPD officer on a variety of corruption, civil rights violations, and theft charges stemming from illegal raids on poor residents of single room occupancy hotels in San Francisco.

“Our department is shaken,” Police Chief Greg Suhr told reporters at a morning news conference. “This is as serious a matter as I’ve ever encountered in the Police Department.”

Yet Suhr also distanced himself from scandal, telling reporters, “This conduct occurred before my time as chief.” Shortly after Suhr was sworn in as chief in April 2011, he changed department policies related to the SROs, including preventing officers from using pass keys to enter the buildings without a warrant or the rooms without probable cause.

The pattern of alleged criminal behavior by SFPD officers was exposed in early 2011 by Public Defender Jeff Adachi, whose investigators found video surveillance from the Henry Hotel and other local SROs that supported defendants claims that police were shaking them down and then submitting false police reports.

“The indictments today are a victory for ordinary San Franciscans,” Adachi told reporters today, emphasizing that in addition to personally profiting from the shakedown, these officers were also submitting false testimony in perhaps hundreds of cases, including 100 that his office has gotten dismissed. “These allegations not only involve violations of the constitutional rights of our clients, but also lying on police records that were used to sent individuals to prison based on the testimony of these officers.”

Once the videos were made public, the investigation was referred to federal investigators because District Attorney George Gascon’s office had a conflict of interest, given that he had just come from serving as police chief in the SFPD, where he presided over the officers involved in this scandal.

Gascon issued a public statement saying, “I am relieved to know that the officers have been indicted after I referred the matter to federal authorities. It is extremely disappointing that the officers violated the trust of the community and tarnished the reputation of all the hard working men and women in uniform. As law enforcement, we must all work hard to ensure our agencies operate with the highest integrity and are deserving of the trust the public bestows upon us.”

Raw video of the press conference via KTVU.

His office didn’t respond to Guardian questions about his culpability in the scandal, but Gascon is likely to be asked about it when he holds a press briefing this hour. [UPDATE 5:30PM: During a brief press availability, Gascon said the indictments shouldn't be considered a reflection of his leadership of the department: "Anytime you have a large organization, you are going to have people who operate outside the boundaries of what is acceptable." Asked by the Guardian when he became aware of allegations that his officers were being accused of shaking down tenants in the SROs, he said, "We became aware at the same time everyone else did, when the videos came out." The press availability was cut off after 10 minutes because Gascon was giving a State of Public Safety speech upstairs, showing up 25 minutes later, but spokesperson Alex Bastian said he would try to get answers tomorrow to Guardian questions about Gascon's record and independence when it comes to prosecuting police abuse cases.]

Those indicted today were Officers Arshad Razzak, Richard Yick, Raul Eric Elias, and Edmond Robles, and Sgt. Ian Furminger. Also indicted was former officer Reynaldo Vargas, who was caught on videotape appearing to steal a laptop computer from a tenants in the Henry Hotel, and who Suhr said was dismissed from the SFPD before the federal investigation began.

Suhr also said that all of those involved have been on administrative duties throughout the investigation, which the SFPD cooperated with, and that some of them (he couldn’t say how many) were also required to turn in their firearms.

These indictments also don’t appear to be the end of this unfolding scandal. “There were other officers involved and they will be dealt with administratively,” Suhr said without providing details. When asked by the Guardian whether anyone in the command staff may face discipline, Suhr said “no.”

But with these six facing possibly lengthy prison terms, it will be interesting to see what they have to say about what others in the SFPD knew about their actions, which also allegedly involved running a drug ring out of Mission Station, where Furminger, Robles, and Vargas are accused of illegally seizing and selling marijuana.

Adachi wants to see this investigation continue: “It would be hard to believe that nobody who was involved in supervising these officers was aware of it.”