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San Francisco PD Singled Out Black Residents In Drug Stings, Lawsuit Alleges

Race was a motivating factor in a series of undercover drug stings by the San Francisco Police Department four years ago, leading to the indictments of over three dozen African-American suspects, a new lawsuit alleges.

The complaint, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and its Northern California branch in federal court Thursday, accuses San Francisco of allowing racial bias to fester in its police department for more than a decade, namely during the joint federal/SFPD sting operations in 2013 and 2014, KQED reported.

San Francisco Police Department

The ACLU lawsuit cites at least seven major studies that found stark racial disparities in the city’s policing. (Image courtesy of ABC News 7)

The organization filed the complaint on behalf of six people arrested in the operations and cites official reports, articles and academic research going back more than 10 years that point to stark racial disparities in the city’s arrests.

“This indifference to overwhelming evidence of racially biased policing and racist attitudes by some officers, and a refusal to discipline adequately officers for facially biased policing or implement training and protocols to eradicate racial disparities in enforcement caused the selective enforcement of drug laws against exclusively Black people,” the lawsuit states.

In 2013 and 2014, the SFPD teamed up with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to launch “Operation Safe Schools,” an effort targeting “persistent, recidivist, and repeat offenders” in the city’s Tenderloin community selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school. Officers encountered drug dealers of many races, yet all 37 people targeted for arrest and federal indictment were African-American.

ACLU lawyers argue this wasn’t by chance, however. In the lawsuit, they cite a video of an undercover cop refusing to score drugs from an Asian woman and instead buying them from a Black woman, Cassie Roberts.

“On the recording, the undercover officer explains that Ms. Roberts wasn’t paying attention to him, but he got her attention and avoided the ‘Asian chick,’ ” the lawsuit claims.

Although most of the defendants took plea bargains, 12 of them disputed their charges long enough for defense attorneys to gather evidence proving authorities had singled out Black people over suspects of other races.

A federal public defender presented the court with the evidence, after which a district court judge determined there was “substantial evidence suggestive of racially selective enforcement.” Before lawyers could complete the discovery process ordered by the court, however, federal prosecutors “abruptly sought dismissal, without explanation” for charges against the 12 defendants, according to the lawsuit.

“These arrests show that San Francisco is continuing its long history of targeting non-white people for harsher treatment,” the ACLU stated. “And shamefully, it has been on notice for many years that it has a serious problem.”

The lawsuit not only decries the circumstances of the folks arrested in the operations but points to the department’s history of racial discrimination, citing numerous scandals that rocked the department. The complaint also highlights seven major studies detailing the SFPD’s race-based policing.

John Cote, a spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office, declined to comment on the lawsuit but defended the department’s actions.

“This was a joint operation led by the federal government,” Cote told KQED. The evidence will show that San Francisco police acted in accordance with federal directives. “The SFPD prides itself on being one of the most diverse, forward-thinking and transparent law enforcement agencies in the country.”

Though their cases were eventually dismissed, the ACLU’s complaint alleges that the six plaintiffs suffered harm as the result of their arrests, including one woman who was jailed for 311 before her case was thrown out. The organization is seeking damages on their behalf.

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