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Lawsuit against SFPD alleges drug arrests were racially motivated

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SFPD (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Years after dozens of black people were arrested in a Tenderloin drug sting, six defendants who later had charges against them dismissed are expected to file a federal lawsuit Thursday morning alleging they were targeted because of their race.

Thirty-seven people were arrested in the Tenderloin between 2013 and 2015 as part of “Operation Safe Schools,” a joint law enforcement action between the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the San Francisco Police Department.

All 37 were black, leading federal public defenders to raise concerns about selective enforcement.

The civil lawsuit cites a survey administered to active drug users that showed racial diversity among people who sold drugs in the Tenderloin. Roughly half were black, but 20 percent were Latino and 17 percent white.

In 2015, video footage posted to YouTube revealed a San Francisco police officer conducting surveillance during the operation muttering “fucking BMs,” the police code for black males. The video also appeared to show an undercover informant turning down drugs from an Asian woman in favor of drugs from a black woman.

When 12 of those charged in the operation were granted a motion of discovery by a judge who found there was “substantial evidence suggestive of racially selective enforcement,” prosecutors dropped the charges on Jan. 25, 2017 before a full accounting of police involvement could be determined.

Novella Coleman, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California who is representing the six plaintiffs, said they first and foremost are seeking “an opportunity to hold the actors in the San Francisco Police Department and The City itself accountable for the police department’s longstanding practices of engaging in racially discriminatory law enforcement.”

Secondarily, they are seeking relief for the six individuals filing the suit. “The court will determine how to monetize that,” she said.

The civil lawsuit comes more than a year and a half after the dismissal of criminal charges.

“There was a lot of evidence that needed to be gathered to have a basis to bring those claims in court,” said Coleman. “That can often be a deterrent itself to individuals who want to bring a claim.”

“What made this case unique is a number of the individuals were represented by federal public defenders, so the office was in a position to notice the pattern that all 37 were black,” Coleman said. “They’re the ones who brought it to the attention of the court itself during criminal prosecution.”

When criminal charges were dismissed in 2017, the presiding federal judge indicated he was concerned that the dismissal of charges prevented the allegations of bias from being heard, but was granting it because it was in the best interests of the defendants.

“These are serious issues, serious allegations regarding claims of discriminatory enforcement patterns,” said U.S. District Court Judge Edward Chen. “I think the defendants in this case have raised a very substantial prima facie case that, at the very least, raises some serious questions that would warrant a response and a full airing of the issues.”

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