Examiner Editorial: Reopen SFPD’s intelligence-gathering unit

San Francisco has a particularly bad history of short-changing preparations for likely future emergencies. On needs like earthquake preparedness and water system repairs, The City routinely defers action while throwing most available funding at projects offering immediately visible voter appeal.

This risky and short-sighted approach is likely to continue, as crushing annual deficits shrink discretionary municipal spending. Yet, there’s one looming danger that San Francisco could actually better prepare for without spending impossible sums. And it would mostly require common sense and the will to act.

The City’s high-energy new police chief, George Gascón, says our homeland security vulnerability is the issue that keeps him awake at night. He told The Examiner, “I think we are terribly underprepared to deal with an act of terrorism, and this city is a major target.”

Gascón pledged to make it a top priority in the next few months to talk about “the need for us to develop a robust homeland security process.” The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has already given The City $1 million for an operations center independent of the Turk Street emergency management center. But Gascón was startled to learn that the SFPD is “the only major police department in the world that cannot collect intelligence.” Our Police Department’s counterintelligence unit was disbanded more than 15 years ago because of one ugly internal abuse. A former CIA agent turned San Francisco police inspector, Tom Gerard, in 1993 was found to have sold confidential files on more than 500 organizations and 100,000 individuals of every political stripe to an undercover spy.

Gerard pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor of illegally accessing government information. He served 45 days in jail and paid a $2,500 fine. Meanwhile, some 10 different organizations — including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Asian Law Caucus — sued The City to curtail its surveillance operations.

The lawsuit was eventually settled by guarantees that police would basically ban intelligence gathering unless a crime occurred or was about to occur. In the harsher reality of today’s post-9/11 world, such restrictions seem outmoded and leave San Francisco residents needlessly vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

Gascón wants to reach out to the public and civil liberties groups before bringing the Police Commission a plan allowing the SFPD to perform counterintelligence operations under solid new safeguards against abuses and espionage breaches — perhaps an independent oversight board. In contentious San Francisco, this proposed change will automatically trigger opposition from outside groups and elected officials.

But legitimate intelligence gathering — along with better coordination with the FBI and other federal agencies, plus working with landlords to increase building security — is necessary to help protect The City against those who would harm it.

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