SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – San Francisco police officers targeted 37 black people with arrests for selling “small amounts of drugs” because of their race, six arrestees claim in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday.
The arrests were part of a joint operation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Attorney’s Office called “Operation Safe Schools.” The operation targeted drug dealers in the Tenderloin, a downtown neighborhood notorious for illegal drug use and sales, in 2013 and 2014.
One officer involved in the arrests was caught on video voicing racist views about black people. Another was seen refusing to buy drugs from an Asian person and instead waiting for a black woman to get off her phone so he could target her, according to evidence cited in the complaint.
After a judge granted a request to seek additional evidence of alleged racial bias in a criminal case, federal prosecutors abruptly dropped charges against 12 of the 37 people still fighting the charges in court.
“Neither the police department nor the federal prosecutors provided any meaningful explanation for why these defendants had been targeted for arrest and prosecution over others similarly situated, or what compelled the sudden dismissals of the charges against them,” the 61-page complaint states.
The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office denied that officers selectively targeted black people during the operation.
“This was a joint operation led by the federal government,” City Attorney’s Office spokesman John Cote said in an email. “The evidence will show that San Francisco police acted in accordance with federal directives.”
The goal of the operation was to go after people selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, a crime that comes with enhanced sentencing. About 46 law enforcement officers were involved in the operation, including 34 San Francisco police officers, 10 DEA officers, a U.S. marshal and a Daly City police officer, according to the complaint.
The first wave of arrests took place between August and November 2013, resulting in 14 arrests. A second wave occurred from October to December 2014, resulting in 23 arrests.
All six plaintiffs who sued the city on Thursday were targeted in the second wave of arrests, according to the lawsuit.
The Federal Public Defender’s office represented eight of the arrestees in a consolidated criminal case and uncovered evidence of racial bias through discovery requests. Before discovery could continue, the charges were suddenly dropped on Jan. 25, 2017.
The lawsuit cites reports going back to 2002 showing a pattern of racial bias in the police department, including two separate scandals over officers exchanging racist text messages in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015.
The complaint also cites recent reviews by U.S. Justice Department in 2016 and a Blue Ribbon Panel formed by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office in 2015. Both reviews found the department failed to implement recommended changes to training procedures, data collection and internal investigation practices to enhance transparency and eliminate racial bias.
The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office strongly disputes allegations of a pattern of racial bias in the city’s police department.
“The San Francisco Police Department prides itself on being one of the most diverse, forward-thinking and transparent law enforcement agencies in the country,” Cote said.
The arrests caused one of the plaintiffs, Crystal Anthony, to lose her job at UPS. Another plaintiff, Shalona Adams, had no opportunity to get someone to care for her four-month-old son during her four days in detention. She eventually found friends to help care for the baby, according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs allege selective enforcement and violation of their 14th Amendment equal protection rights. They seek punitive and compensatory damages.
They are represented by Daralyn Durie of Durie Tangri in San Francisco and Novella Coleman of the ACLU Foundation of Northern California.