Gascón's essential conflict

SFPD's old boy's club runs into some inconsistencies

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The latest video of a police arrest in a Tenderloin hotel room — this one apparently showing police officers entering a room without a warrant, attacking an unarmed bystander, and stealing a resident's duffle bag — has set off a wide range of investigations. But what's really disturbing is that the video is all too typical of what seems to be business as usual among undercover narcotics detectives. In fact, a series of recent security videos show San Francisco cops doing one thing — and reporting something else.

"We've yet to run across a single video that matches up with what the police swear to in their report," noted Chief Public Defender Attorney Matt Gonzalez.

We're not talking about one police station, one crew, or one rogue cop. This is, to all available evidence, a pattern of rotten behavior in the department. It's impossible to believe that these are just a few isolated incidents — or that the problems are concentrated in the lower ranks. If command-level officers didn't know what was going on, then they're incompetent. If they knew — which is far more likely — then they were covering up.

That's nothing new in the old boy's club that is the San Francisco Police Department. While the criminal cases against senior cops in the Fajitagate scandal went nowhere, the evidence strongly suggested that a cover-up had been ordered and executed at all levels.

In that case, Terence Hallinan, the district attorney, took the lead in trying to hold the cops accountable. But now the person running the D.A.'s Office — former Police Chief George Gascón — is politically paralyzed. Gascón can't investigate systemic corruption in a department that until recently he was running. He can't, at this point, even seem to figure out which cases he can take and which he can't. He hasn't adopted and made public a conflict of interest policy for himself and his office. And any honest policy would make it impossible for him to get involved in any action involving his former employees.

This is, to put it mildly, the exact reason why police chiefs don't become district attorneys, why Gavin Newsom's parting shot to the city has badly damaged the credibility of local law enforcement. It's also the strongest argument possible for the election of a new district attorney.

David Onek, one of the candidates challenging Gascón, has called for a conflict of interest policy saying, "The people of San Francisco deserve and demand a district attorney who will avoid clear conflicts of interest as a matter of policy — rather than personal whim." That's a no-brainer. But the problem goes deeper. As Sharmin Bock, a veteran Alameda County prosecutor who is also running for Gascón's job, noted, there's no policy that can address this problem. If Gascón punts all investigations of the SFPD to the FBI or the state attorney general, he's not only giving up local jurisdiction, he's vastly increasingly the likelihood that nothing will ever happen. The FBI has limited jurisdiction; the Attorney General's Office isn't set up to do this kind of work.

"The only answer," she said, "is a different D.A."

Gascón needs to deal with this situation immediately, publicly, and credibly. Perhaps the city needs an independent special prosecutor, someone outside Gascón's office but with full authority to seek indictments (paid for out of Gascón's budget, since he created this mess.) Because if he can't find a solution, he's going to have a hard time convincing anyone he deserves to stay on the job.