Civil libertarians in San Francisco, who think President-elect Donald Trump will fulfill his promises to focus increased surveillance on minority groups, fear local law enforcement may help their federal counterparts spy on law-obeying residents even though a local ordinance prohibits such cooperation.
That’s because a city ordinance passed four years ago, which bars San Francisco police from taking part in certain investigations with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, has not always been followed by police.
“We have been concerned about the collaboration between local and federal law enforcement,” said Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, who noted that little progress has been made since The City passed a law curbing that cooperation.
In 2012, San Francisco passed an ordinance narrowing what kind of counterterrorism activities its police could take part in and requiring the department to report such activities to the Police Commission once a year. The Safe San Francisco Civil Rights Ordinance was adopted after documents showed the FBI and police were illegally spying on Muslims in the Bay Area.
“Federal agencies were treating Muslim Americans in a way that we viewed as unconstitutional,” said Asian Law Caucus staffer Christina Sinha, who said she is hopeful about fully implementing the local ordinance now and has had several recent meetings with police brass on the issue. Another is set for Tuesday, she said.
Despite its passage, the department has not always stayed true to The City’s mandate, and that fact worries local civil liberty groups, specifically because Trump has said he wants to increase surveillance of religious minorities and specific populations because of their nation of origin.
Additionally, the ordinance’s full implementation relies on the department reporting on whether it has violated the ordinance, Police Commissioner Victor Hwang said.
“We rely on the department for accurate information,” said Hwang, who questioned whether that was being delivered. In its last annual report on the subject, the department reported that no violation had occurred.
The San Francisco Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
On June 4, 2014, Sarmand Gilani, then a 29-year-old Google employee of Pakistani descent, was interviewed about a vague variety of activities by a federal official and a San Francisco police officer who was the department’s liaison to the FBI terrorism task force at the time. Gilani claims he did nothing wrong and was never told why he was under suspicion.
The San Francisco police oversight body, then known as the Office of Citizen Complaints, found that while the officer broke city law and department orders, the fault was not his alone since it was due to a lack of training.
But the incident is an example of the SFPD violating city law by taking part in an interview with a federal agent. Gilani was not suspected of breaking the law, and the interview was not undertaken because the law enforcement officers had probable cause, according to Gilani and the civil liberties groups concerned with his case.
John Crew, a former ACLU lawyer who until recently represented the Asian Law Caucus in the Gilani case, said the department is meeting with the groups who raised issues because of the Gilani case. He said he hopes the tone of national politics puts an increased pressure on the department to fully follow the ordinance.
“The big picture now is that there has always been a need for San Francisco to make sure our stronger civil rights protections are in full effect when our local officers are working with the FBI,” Crew said. “It is even more critical that we get this right and fix this problem because it will soon be Donald Trump’s FBI.”
While Crew said it’s too soon to say if Trump’s calls for increased surveillance and scrutiny of Muslims and other minorities will come to fruition, he noted that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
“I am taking seriously what candidate Donald Trump said during the campaign,” Crew said. “At minimum, we should prepare.”