Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerPolice continue to use the decoy-arrest method

Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerPolice continue to use the decoy-arrest method

San Francisco police still using buy-bust tactic on marijuana dealers in Haight-Ashbury

The “decoy” arrest — in which plainclothes officers approach would-be drug sellers asking for a $40 bag of marijuana — has become an increasingly less common tactic throughout The City.

But not in the Haight-Ashbury.

While buy-bust arrests citywide are dropping — from 485 in 2008 to 160 last year — they are increasing in the iconic neighborhood.

According to statistics compiled by the Public Defender’s Office, there were 38 buy-bust stings in the Haight-Ashbury in 2012, a five-year high. That represented 24 percent of all decoy stings in San Francisco, up from no higher than 9 percent in the previous four years.

All but one of the 2012 arrests involved marijuana — usually an amount small enough to not be considered a possession crime in California. And through the end of March of this year, all seven Haight-Ashbury buy-bust operations netted pot.

These cases rarely get to trial. Of the 38 in 2012, six are still active in the court system, according to records. Eight suspects have fled town and warrants have been issued for their arrests. Eighteen defendants accepted plea deals that include stay-away orders from the neighborhood and probation. And four cases have been dismissed.

That’s a success, according to Capt. Greg Corrales, who has been in charge of nearby Park Police Station since June. Corrales began conducting the stings — usually twice a week, he said — to combat the horde of drug dealers who would accost residents entering Golden Gate Park.

“People couldn’t take their kids to the playground without dealers fighting each other to sell them marijuana,” said Corrales, a former head of the Police Department’s narcotics division who called drug enforcement “my forte.”

“We have been very zealous in combating marijuana sales … and I believe it has had the intended effect,” he added.

Buy-bust stings are conducted on the district-station level, at the behest of the station captain, according to Officer Albie Esparza.

SFPD does not keep arrest statistics or other citywide statistics on decoy arrests, said Esparza, who could not explain why other captains were employing the buy-bust tactic less frequently.

The uptick in marijuana arrests corresponds with Corrales’ arrival. That’s no coincidence, said Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney at the Public Defender’s Office who also used to represent the Haight-Ashbury on the Board of Supervisors.

Buy-busts “are a waste of resources” that create “contrived crime arrests,” said Gonzalez, who added that San Francisco, and the Haight-Ashbury in particular, has “moved on” from seeing marijuana use as a major problem.

“It’s reigniting a war that was already fought and done with,” ?Gonzalez said.

“Juries do not want to see these cases,” he added.

Possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is no longer a crime in California; it’s an infraction punishable by a $100 fine. And in San Francisco, there’s a city law that says marijuana crime is supposed to be the police’s lowest priority.

But marijuana sales remain a felony offense under California law.

A spokeswoman for District Attorney George Gascón said Thursday that he was not prepared to comment on the uptick in ?buy-busts.

croberts@sfexaminer.com


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