A large crowd packed the fourth floor of City Hall for the Police Commission meeting on Wednesday night. Most had come at the behest of civil liberty groups that were concerned about ongoing cooperation between the San Francisco Police Department and the FBI.
Those worries have been heightened since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who has questioned police reform — he’s called for more aggressive policing — and raised concerns about First Amendment protections.
But newly sworn in Police Chief William Scott, who was attending his first commission meeting, made a decisive move Wednesday night that no one expected.
Just before Scott sat down alongside the six commissioners who oversee his roughly 2,300-person police force, the department announced it would suspend cooperation with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which leads regional counterterrorism investigations and is headed by the FBI’s San Francisco office.
Some groups in San Francisco say the JTTF has run roughshod over First Amendment rights by investigating people based on tips or activity deemed strange instead of the reasonable-suspicion standard used by police.
“The chief made the decision,” said SFPD spokesperson Grace Gatpandan, who added that the decision had nothing to do with the president.
Scott himself gave little reason for the surprise move, but said the 10-year memorandum of understanding between the FBI and the department is about to run out.
Gatpandan did not explain why the chief suspended the MOU nearly a month before its expiration in March. She only said the department is required to review all MOU’s that are 10 years or older.
“The idea that this happened because the MOU governing the relationship was nearly 10 years old doesn’t seem plausible, especially since the MOU does not hit its end for another month,” said Christina Sinha, a staff attorney for the Asian Law Caucus.
The ALC is one of the civil liberty groups that had pressed the department to uphold the city law, which bars SFPD’s two liaison officers from participating in certain JTTF operations that may violate First Amendment rights.
During months of negotiation between the two law enforcement agencies, Sinha said the MOU’s expiration date was never mentioned, nor was the possibility of the department ceasing cooperation with the FBI.
“The more plausible explanation, and really the only factor in play, is Chief William Scott,” Sinha added.
Before Wednesday’s meeting, FBI Assistant Special Agent Craig Fair, who oversees JTTF and the police department’s two liaison officers, met with SFPD leadership, according to an email Fair sent to former ACLU lawyer John Crew. Crew, who had been working on the issue on behalf of a group of civil liberty organizations, said he has met Fair personally on several occasions.
While it’s unclear what was discussed in that meeting, the FBI offered a similar story about the MOU in their statement on the department’s decision to sever ties with the FBI.
“FBI San Francisco Division is aware of the pending expiration of the memorandum between the San Francisco Police Department and the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The expiration of this MOU was built into this document a decade ago to facilitate adjustments based on the evolution of threats to San Francisco and the Bay area,” said an FBI statement on the matter.
Passed in 2012, The City’s ordinance on SFPD cooperation with the JTTF has not always been followed. A recent report from the Department of Police Accountability, the SFPD’s newly named oversight body, and at least one case reported on by the San Francisco Examiner show that the police department failed to follow the law.
But up until three weeks ago, the department, the FBI and civil liberties groups were in talks to fix the issues, not suspend the MOU.
“Before the last commission meeting, we were expecting a discussion with the police department, with the command staff,” Sinha said. “We were urging them to conduct a training for the officers.”
Still, Sinha cautioned that the MOU may be renegotiated — not permanently terminated — which seemed to be reflected by the end of the FBI’s statement.
“The FBI looks forward to developing a new MOU with the SFPD to more accurately reflect current policies and procedures within each agency,” the FBI said in its statement. “The San Francisco JTTF continues to be committed to working with our state, local and federal law enforcement partners to protect the American people and uphold the United States Constitution.”
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