Saturday, November 30, 2019
[Santa Clara County] Santa Clara supervisors may ban children from being sent to troubled housing center
Advocates have complained for years about the center where abused children await housing
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
When children who’ve been abused or neglected are taken away from home, the government is supposed to make sure they’re placed in a safe home or place to stay.
But in Santa Clara County that place hasn’t always been safe, and as they have for about a decade, children’s advocates and foster parents complain that violence, drugs and inadequate staff training still plague the center where many children end up.
Some members of the Board of Supervisors this week said enough is enough and proposed an immediate halt to temporarily housing children in the county-run Receiving, Assessment and Intake Center (RAIC).
“They had 10 years to figure it out. They came to us eight years ago and said, we’re having problems, kids are being molested, and kids who have drug abuse issues are [being housed] with kids who don’t,” Supervisor Dave Cortese said in a phone call Monday. “There comes a point in time where you’ve talked and talked and try to take corrective action as an elected official and nothing changes, so you take drastic action.”
At Tuesday’s board meeting, the supervisors asked staff to return with a plan in two weeks that could include the option of putting an immediate moratorium on housing children at the receiving center and temporarily moving them elsewhere.
The receiving center was created after the county closed its full-time children’s shelter in 2009 amid a shift away from group homes and numerous and persistent complaints against it — including a grand jury report — about conditions that re-traumatize children and induce self-destructive behavior.
The receiving center is meant to be a temporary stop — a place for children to stay no more than a day to get food, social services and other necessities on their way to a more permanent home.
Some children, especially those with no prior interaction with the system, are supposed to be at the center for only a few hours. But in reality, a shortage in foster homes and a dearth of options means some stay much longer, in violation of state law, especially older ones with serious behavioral issues who have cycled out of multiple housing placements.
“Things can go very smoothly — kids come in, they get immediate needs like food, shelter and other care, and in theory, move onto a [housing] placement,” said Julian Soria, a social worker at the center for more than a year. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the reality — older kids realized they could turn down placements, and we can’t deny them that, so we’d have dependents there for long stretches of time, weeks to months.”
Social workers have also raised concerns about younger children unfamiliar with the system being housed with older children who have been at the receiving center multiple times and might have behavioral or substance abuse problems or exhibit violent behavior. A shortage of security at the center also has made it easy for youth to come and go, leaving through windows and bringing in drugs or weapons, employees say.
Kathleen Harrison, a psychiatric social worker at the center for six years, recalled an instance a few months ago involving a group of young siblings removed from a home of domestic abuse.
“Earlier in the day…a teen was very loud and aggressive and threatening toward the staff…and a couple of these youth expressed to me they didn’t want to leave their room because they were scared,” Harrison said. “They were removed because of domestic violence, and again exposed to similar [situations]” at the center.
In addition, employees at the center have been assaulted by youth. Harrison recalled an instance where a teenager threatened a staff member and later brought in a knife.
Soria said employees don’t receive specialized training in handling children with serious behavioral issues, properly restraining them or interacting with those who have developmental disabilities. He has seen several children with developmental disabilities, such as autism, at the receiving center in the past year.
“I have a background in autism intervention and developmental disabilities…but if I hadn’t had that background, I haven’t really received any guidance or support or training that specifically addressed some of those needs,” Soria said. “If we had certain children who can’t speak, or are acting out, or instances where they could self-harm, are we supposed to be hands off and let an individual hurt themselves?”
The county has been discussing various changes to the receiving center since the children’s shelter was closed. County CEO Jeff Smith said the long-term plan was always to move away from the receiving center model.
“Staff completely agrees with the board that the receiving center is a model that no longer works,” Smith said at Tuesday’s meeting. “What’s really obvious to everyone, the state included, is the only way they are appropriately taken care of is with full wrap-around services, including mental health, and substance abuse.”
Several employees said they’ve only seen changes at the receiving center in the past month, attributing that to the publicity generated by an employees’ strike in October.
Smith rejected the notion that the changes were a response to the strike, adding the county has been working on those issues for years.
He acknowledged that training for social workers has not been adequate, and said the county recently added probation officers and behavioral health staff to the receiving center. Children also are now housed at different facilities according to age and behavioral issues, he said.
Cortese said all the problems cited by employees have persisted for years and blamed the county administration for that.
“It’s not a problem with [being] overwhelmed or overcapacity, it’s just a lack of will to do so,” Cortese said. “If they’ve proven anything, it’s that the more elaborate a RAIC facility they focus themselves on, the more of a slippery slope they create toward turning it into a shelter.”
Supervisor Cindy Chavez said imposing a hard deadline would move the process along.
“The intent here is to get people focused, get the county focused. We can’t have another nine-, 10-year planning process,” she said.
Still, many advocates advised against an immediate moratorium, telling supervisors it would only create more problems.
“In reality, there is no magical solution and there will always be a need for the RAIC,” said Steven Baron, a member of the county’s Child Abuse Prevention Council. “Because there will be days and nights where you will not have places to put these kids, and days when people who are taking care of these kids say they can’t do it anymore.”
November 6, 2019
The Mercury News
By Thy Vo
Some prefer open-source models
Blog note: this article references a 2016 San Francisco County grand jury report.
On Oct. 17, San Mateo County officials debuted a new voting machine, the county’s first voting system update since 2006. Not everyone is enthusiastic about the upgrade.
As with so much in and around Silicon Valley, the issue is software.
“I am disappointed that the Secretary of State has certified a system that has no open-source software,” said South San Francisco resident Danny Schwartzman, who attended a public demonstration of the new machines at Assemblymember Kevin Mullin’s district office in San Mateo.
In February, to strengthen election security, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla ordered counties to implement voting systems that meet the state’s newest standards in time for next year’s elections or face legal action. The new voting machines came in response to the state order, but critics say security is still an issue because the systems use hidden source code.
San Mateo County leased its new voting machines, called Democracy Suite, from Dominion Voting Systems. DVS has sold voting systems to 42 of the 58 counties in California.
The new machine is “one of the safest and securest voting systems in the United States,” said Jim Irizarry, assistant chief elections officer for San Mateo County.
The voting machines are large Android tablets connected to printers. After a voter fills out and approves a digital ballot, the ballot is printed. The ballot, now in paper form with a barcode, is then cast in a sealed envelope and sent off to be scanned.
The machine is “not a bad one,” said Coastsider Brent Turner, secretary of the California Association of Voting Officials, a nonprofit whose mission is to develop new voting systems that utilize open-source software.
But Turner said he objects to the system “because it is not open-source — the public has no oversight regarding the software code.”
Some reports suggest closed-source voting system vendors like DVS use vulnerable software, have outdated equipment, and provide faulty voting machines.
“So, we don’t know if the final tabulation is correct or not,” said Turner. “There’s no way to subpoena that code.”
Irizarry said the new DVS machines address this problem.
“This system leaves a paper-audit trail and a digital one,” said Irizarry. “We will know every step of the way who touched that ballot, what scanner scanned it, what vote center processed it, and how it was adjudicated.”
However, multiple reports suggest these new machines still have vulnerabilities: They auto-fill the parts of any ballot that are left blank, and they do not allow voters to verify that the information in the printed barcode matches their voting choices.
Support for open-source voting has gained traction over the years. In a letter sent to the country’s three largest voting system vendors, including DVS, four U.S. senators noted the potential for open-source voting systems to overcome technical vulnerabilities in existing voting machines.
Government agencies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are currently funding research and development of an open-source voting system. Microsoft, in an effort to make elections more secure and transparent, recently released ElectionGuard, an open-source voting platform for handling voting data.
The security of open-source voting systems, however, depends on its users.
According to a 2018 report by a San Francisco civil grand jury, since the source code in an open-source project is available for anybody to inspect, it becomes easier to find vulnerabilities and potentially exploit them. However, the larger the number of people inspecting and maintaining the source code, the more secure the system will be. A 2016 report by the University of Pennsylvania concluded the same.
Both reports suggest open-source voting systems could potentially lead to cost savings due to the lack of expensive licensing fees — which typically come with every update of a vendor’s voting system — and use of nonspecialized hardware.
San Mateo County acquired the new voting machines over a nine-year lease, consisting of three three-year options. According to Mark Church, chief elections officer for San Mateo County, this will give the county the “flexibility to decide if we like it.”
“And, also, with the open-source market,” said Church. “If they produce a viable alternative that ultimately is certified by the secretary of state, we will consider that as well.”
November 6, 2019
Half Moon Bay Review
By Daniel Roman
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — A proposal to create a police oversight commission in San Diego took a step forward Tuesday.
The San Diego City Council voted unanimously to begin meeting with the San Diego Police Officers Association, a key legal step along the path to the November ballot.
A group called Women Occupy San Diego has been pushing for years to change the city's current Community Review Board on Police Practices, which a 2018 Grand Jury report concluded lacked oversight. That Grand Jury noted the community review board does not have subpoena power and that San Diego Police personnel can sit in on what are supposed to be closed-door deliberations.
"It's not independent of the mayor, it does not have its own investigative powers," Attorney Genevieve Jones-Wright said at a rally outside City Hall before the Tuesday vote. "The concern from the community is that it is just a rubber stamp of what police officers have already determined in their own investigations."
The proposed independent commission would investigate all deaths occurring while a person is in police custody, all deaths resulting from interactions with a San Diego police officer, and all officer-related shootings. It would have subpoena power and its own legal representation.
"One of the things that's most disturbing about the current CRB is that it is required to have as its attorney the City Attorney. And the City Attorney is the same attorney for the police department," said Andrea St. Julian, who authored the proposal submitted to the city.
The meet-and-confer with the union is expected to happen in time for the November election. Jack Schaeffer, who heads the association, welcomed the talks.
"We're going to make sure that the way that they're planning on rolling this thing out isn't going to interfere in our ability to investigate a crime scene, and then how we interact and things like that," he said. "It's going to be really important to figure that out during meet-and-confer."
In a statement, Police Chief David Nisleit said the department will work with civilian oversight in any manner approved by the voters.
The city's independent business analyst said the commission could cost between $1.1 million and $2.3 million per year, depending on staffing. Proponents say that is in line with other cities with similar commissions.
November 5, 2019
ABC 10 News San Diego
By Jonathan Horn
Blog note: this article references two grand jury repors.
Marin’s “city with a mission” is crying foul over a new report that slaps San Rafael with the No. 1 ranking for pension debtors in the state.
“We’re not trying to make excuses,” said San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips. “We just want there to be a level playing field.”
At issue is a recent California state auditor report, “Local Government High Risk Dashboard,” that pinpoints which of 470 cities in the state are most financially strapped in 10 different areas, including pensions. Neither San Rafael nor any other Marin cities made the list of top 18 cities highlighted as being the most high-risk overall — the mission city was No. 36 — but San Rafael did place No. 1 in the pension category.
That is misleading, according to Phillips, because the dashboard fails to note that San Rafael is not part of the California Public Employees Retirement System — as are most of other cities surveyed. San Rafael is a member of the Marin County Employees Retirement Association, which specifies a faster rate to pay down pension debt than CalPERS.
“It’s like the difference between a 30-year mortgage and a 15-year mortgage,” Phillips said. As such, San Rafael’s pension debt payments are larger, but the debt will be paid off sooner, at a lower cost, said Nadine Hade, the city’s finance director.
“A significant reduction in contribution rates is projected for 2030-2031, as the bulk of the unfunded liability will have been paid off due to a shorter amortization period,” Hade said in an email. “Given CalPERS has a longer amortization period, it will not be the case for them and I would expect their costs will be greater.”
Margarita Fernandez, public affairs chief for the California state auditor’s office, said the dashboard report was meant to be a point of reference and transparency and not a fiscal hammer.
“We do not correct for the differences between CalPERS and other retirement systems,” she said in an email. “The tool is intended to generate the discussion and assessments to determine if a city is in fact in fiscal stress or if perhaps there are some reasons why the indicators may be high or low.”
Richard Tait, a spokesman for the Marin-based grassroots group Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans, said San Rafael’s high rate of debt payoff comes with a price.
“It’s not a bad thing to pay off your debts, but it does impact the amount left over for critical city services,” he said Monday.
Unfunded liability means the amount of pension benefits that are promised and owed to employees over the term of their retirement, but which is not currently covered by cash on hand. In 2017, a Marin County Civil Grand Jury report, “The Budget Squeeze: How Will Marin Fund its Public Employee Pensions?” indicated the county’s public agencies had a total combined unfunded pension liability of at least $1 billion.
According to Hade, San Rafael’s net pension liability was $110,567,858 as of June 30. Although the amount paid down differs each year, she said, “for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, we paid down $13.8 million of the unfunded liability. This was approximately 68% of our pension expense for the year.” The city’s annual revenue as of June 30 was $123,179,437.
Jeff Wickman, retirement administrator for MCERA, said the auditor’s report, which uses 2016-17 data, appears to base its pension-related rankings largely on the ratio of pension debt paid off as a percentage of the city’s revenue. He said San Rafael’s ratio has consistently gone up over the last two years, and its pension debt has gone down.
“San Rafael’s funding in our plan has been steadfastly improving,” Wickman said. “Our plan is more aggressive in terms of contributions (from employers and employees). We’re trying to achieve 100% funding.”
Wickman said the MCERA member employers and employees pay at higher contribution rates “so that we’re not relying as much on the return on our investments” to fund the program.
San Rafael has come under fire before about its pensions. In 2017, the California Policy Center, a nonprofit watchdog research group, also ranked the city as No. 1 in spending to pay down its pension debt.
“The issue of the high percentage of pension contributions to revenue ratios in San Rafael, at 18.25%, was first highlighted (some months ago),” said Jody Morales, a member of Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans.
“As I recall, it was Marc Joffe who then made the statement that anything over 10% signals a real problem,” Morales added in an email. “Tweaking around the edges of the problem has had little to no positive impact in San Rafael – or most government entities. It is evident that PEPRA (Public Employee Pension Reform Act) offered no real relief when instituted in 2013. Gov. Brown’s original proposals went much further, but were – unfortunately – greatly watered down by the legislators.”
In June 2017, pension watchdog David Brown of Mill Valley filed suit against San Rafael, alleging that it did not follow due process regarding advance public notice and scrutiny of the eventual costs when it approved “enhancements” on pension benefits for public safety workers. The suit, which later ran into some technicalities and failed to go forward, drew from a 2015-16 Marin County Civil Grand Jury report that criticized pension benefit “enhancements,” for the Southern Marin fire district, Novato, San Rafael and Marin County.
Meanwhile, Jim Schutz, San Rafael city manager, said Wickman was in the process of contacting the state to clarify the numbers used in the auditor’s report for the county-run pension plans, such as MCERA. According to the website for the report, the state may have used a different set of pension numbers for MCERA and the other non-CalPERS pension plans.
November 4, 2019
Marin Independent Journal
By Keri Brenner
[San Francisco City and County] FBI and San Francisco Police have been lying about scope of joint counterterrorism investigations, document suggests
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
SAN FRANCISCO POLICE OFFICERS working on an FBI counterterrorism task force were routinely given low-level assignments that would invite violations of local San Francisco law and policy, according to an internal FBI legal analysis obtained by The Intercept.
The FBI’s San Francisco office has long assured the public that its relationship to the city’s police officers could be trusted, especially when it came to officers assigned to the bureau’s secretive counterterrorism teams. In January, for example, John F. Bennett, the special agent in charge of the office, wrote to Mayor London Breed to correct the “inaccurate information promulgated” by the media concerning its Joint Terrorism Task Force, or JTTF, which the San Francisco Police Department chose to remove its officers from more than two years ago.
The split was the extension of an inherent tension: Police officers on the teams operated under both the rules of the FBI and the rules of their department, and the rules of the department — created to protect the civil and First Amendment rights of San Franciscans and enforced under a local San Francisco ordinance — prohibit or strictly regulate much of the core activities FBI agents routinely engage in. Bennett downplayed the issue in his letter to the mayor, pointing to an agreement between the two agencies, which had held that police officers on the task force would follow local departmental rules when working with the FBI.
“SFPD officers assigned to the JTTF were expected to abide by their department’s General Orders while serving on the JTTF, and they did,” Bennett wrote.
It was a rosy picture, but it didn’t tell the whole story. An FBI white paper authored before Bennett sent his letter to the mayor, shows that the bureau’s San Francisco office considered the city’s laws and policies regarding civil rights and free speech to be a major problem. The document stated that the bulk of what police officers did on the San Francisco JTTF were inquiries that would typically be prohibited under SFPD rules and local law, calling into question nearly 120 operations that task force officers participated in over a three-year period.
The internal analysis described a legal catch-22 for San Francisco police officers: They were on one hand required to describe their work for the JTTF to SFPD supervisors and faced potential discipline or removal if they didn’t. At the same time, the work they did for the FBI involved classified matters — and sharing that information, even with a supervisor, exposed officers to federal criminal liability. The document presented several potential solutions to the conflicting rules. The only ones the FBI appeared to endorse were those that would water down or weaken the local civil rights and First Amendment protections SFPD officers are required uphold.
For advocates in San Francisco, who have spent decades working with the police department to hammer out a progressive and constitutionally sound framework for investigations conducted by SFPD officers, well before the police department began sending officers to the JTTF in 2002, the white paper provides confirmation of what many either knew or suspected: that law enforcement officials in San Francisco were saying one thing in public and another behind closed doors.
“The white paper shows that both the SFPD and the FBI have been misleading the community, civil rights organizations and elected officials on this issue from day one,” Javeria Jamil, a staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, told The Intercept. “It confirms that SFPD was not following local law and policy when participating in the JTTF, despite their assertions to the contrary.”
Jeffrey Wang, a civil rights attorney at the San Francisco office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the paper “calls into question both the SFPD and the FBI’s credibility” and, in particular, indicates that Bennett’s letter to the mayor misrepresented facts that his own office was aware of. “They were painting this wonderful picture, everything is all good, however, this white paper comes out and here the FBI directly acknowledges significant conflicts between FBI rules and policies, about how these problems have been recurring, and also about how compliance is almost impossible.”
The inescapable conclusion, Wang added, is that “the SFPD and the FBI were untruthful about what was happening with the JTTF in San Francisco for several years.”
Responding to questions from The Intercept by email, Prentice Danner, of the media office for the FBI’s San Francisco division, wrote that “the white paper was written by counsel for the San Francisco FBI and provided to the Chief of the San Francisco Police Department in December 2016,” and added that FBI “firmly disputes any claim” that the document contradicted Bennett’s letter to the mayor. “The white paper was legal analysis provide [sic] by FBI counsel to the SFPD Chief of police and in no way contradicts the contents of the letter written by SAC Bennett to Mayor Breed.”
The SFPD wrote in an emailed statement that it “stands by” publicly available compliance reports indicating that of the nearly 120 investigative activities task force officers took part in as part of the JTTF from 2014 through 2016, none met the standard set by local guidelines that would require written approval from department leadership. The department, which added that it was not aware of any instances of SFPD officers violating local law or policy while assigned to the JTTF, said it first learned of the white paper in July 2017, contradicting the FBI’s statement that it first gave department leadership the document the previous year.
“This paper outlines current legal and policy issues for points of discussion, including potential solutions and actions,” David Stevenson, the SFPD’s Director of Strategic Communications, said of the 2016 document.
The mayor’s office did not provide a comment by publication.
The clash over the SFPD’s work with the FBI is part of a broader pattern of self-described sanctuary cities pulling back on collaborations between police departments and federal law enforcement amid concerns that local officers will be roped into the Trump administration’s efforts to depopulate the nation of undocumented immigrants.
But the issues raised by the white paper also precede the current president, reflecting the FBI’s post-9/11 transformation into a secretive domestic intelligence agency and the challenges that creates for municipal police departments eager to cooperate with the feds but less capable of shielding themselves from local accountability by invoking “national security” claims. That tension is compounded by San Francisco’s reputation as both a proudly progressive city, and a place where Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian communities have at times found themselves at the center of damaging and unconstitutional law enforcement investigations.
“The community here in the Bay Area and specifically in San Francisco worked really hard for almost two decades to ensure that local police follow stronger local laws and policies when engaging with the FBI and not weaker federal standards,” Javeria, the attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said. “For us, it’s important that this information is brought to light and the SFPD publicly engage with the information in the white paper before engaging in any policy changes on this issue.”
What the FBI Is Really Doing
The SFPD chose to pull its officers from the San Francisco JTTF in February 2017, shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration. There were rumors in the months that followed that the department might rejoin the task force, and the union representing San Francisco police officers ran a series of radio ads in 2018 complaining about the decision. Mostly though, the issue appeared dormant.
It wasn’t until October 2018 that advocates learned of a white paper related to the JTTF. It was referenced in documents that had come in through a public records request. The advocates requested the white paper through the SFPD, and in March of this year filed a complaint with San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force to compel its release. The SFPD resisted, informing the coalition seeking the document that it was doing so at the federal government’s request.
Bennett devoted a full section of his January letter to the mayor on the importance of “community engagement,” writing that confronting violence “can only be successful when law enforcement works in close collaboration with the communities and the citizens they serve,” and adding that “it is essential the FBI maintains a robust relationship with our local partners, both inside and outside of law enforcement, based on a common and accurate understanding of what we do and how we do it.” At an October 3 hearing regarding the SFPD’s departure from the JTTF, San Francisco supervisor Gordon Mar noted that he had both heard about the white paper and, in keeping with bureau’s professed commitment to transparency, filed a letter formally requesting the document ahead of the discussion.
The FBI provided the document an hour after the hearing was over. The U.S. attorney’s office sent a copy to the advocates minutes later.
Advocates immediately noticed that the white paper stated that SFPD officers assigned to the JTTF “are primarily assigned guardian leads (Type 1&2 assessments) in and around the City of San Francisco,” and that “FBI SF JTTF Guardian leads usually involve on some level the exercise of First Amendment activities.”
An assessment is like an investigation, in that it can involve interviews, surveillance, and the procurement of all sorts of personal records and information. The critical difference is that unlike a traditional investigation, an FBI assessment does not require reasonable suspicion, already a low evidentiary hurdle. FBI agents don’t even need to suspect that a crime has happened, is happening, or might happen. A San Francisco police officer can’t do that. Police officers in San Francisco are expected to perform investigations, and those investigations are expected to involve a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. In cases where an officer’s investigation might involve examining activities protected under the First Amendment, local law and policy requires that the operation receive written approval by senior officers and that a paper trail is created that can be assessed in annual, publicly available compliance reports.
One of the reasons assessments matter is because of their tendency to impinge upon activity protected under the First Amendment, said Vasudha Talla, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “The FBI will say that their guidelines prohibit them from focusing solely on individuals’ exercise of First Amendment activity,” Talla explained. “But what we have seen from other documents and reporting is that the FBI, in looking at and investigating and conducting assessments of certain communities — Muslim communities, Middle Eastern communities, south Asian communities, and other communities such as Black Lives Matter activists and border activists and Standing Rock activists — often do focus on First Amendment activities, and that is incredibly troubling.”
“The white paper really reveals the disconnect between what the FBI is saying around First Amendment activity investigation and what it is actually doing,” she added.
According to the most recent publicly available compliance reports, SFPD task force officers took part in 119 activities with the JTTF from 2014 through 2016. During that period SFPD officers never requested written authorization that would greenlight law enforcement activities involving free speech-related activities. “The FBI understands the restrictions placed on members of the SFPD and they have been cooperative in efforts to ensure the officers assigned to the JTTF adhere to SFPD policy,” the reports routinely said. The compliance reports indicated that there were never any violations of the city’s ordinance, and that task force officers were rarely, if ever, assigned to full investigations, which require reasonable suspicion and reflect the kind of investigative activity that San Francisco law and policy actually permits.
In other words, according to the paperwork, SFPD task force officers were engaged in a healthy amount of work for the JTTF over multiple years, but that work never touched on activity that might be protected under the First Amendment, nor did it involve full investigations based on reasonable suspicion, but it was all still somehow in line with San Francisco law and policy.
Advocates had already raised concerns about this improbable scenario before they saw the white paper, in part because investigative activity involving the inherently political and religious issue of suspected terrorism almost always involves brushing up against some sort of activity potentially protected under the First Amendment. Those concerns are now heightened, given that the white paper itself noted that assessments “usually involve on some level the exercise of first amendment activities” and that was what task force officers were “primarily assigned” to do.
John Crew, a retired ACLU attorney who continues acts as a consultant for civil rights organizations in San Francisco, told The Intercept that he “strongly” suspects that “the vast majority if not all” of the 119 activities SFPD task force officers participated in “were in violation of San Francisco law and policy.”
Crew was part of the original committee of civil rights advocates that crafted San Francisco’s policy on SFPD investigations involving political activity in the early 1990s. He has been working on the issue ever since. In 2012, after it was learned that the SFPD and the FBI had for four years been secretly operating a revised agreement that circumvented the local rules, San Francisco’s board of supervisors voted unanimously to pass the Safe San Francisco Civil Rights Ordinance. Under the law, the SFPD would provide annual public reports to the San Francisco Police Commission, the department’s oversight body, summarizing the activities of local officers working on federal task forces and reporting problems complying with local law. “Everything that happened after that was based on this claim that turned out to be a fiction,” Crew said, and he believes the white paper proves it.
“The FBI never took this seriously because they never thought any of this would become public,” Crew said. Though the document is undated, Crew had correctly speculated that it was likely authored in either December 2016 or January 2017. The language, he said, was consistent with arguments a senior San Francisco FBI official made in a meeting the pair had weeks before Trump’s inauguration.
With San Francisco police officers on the JTTF primarily assigned to assessments, the FBI’s white paper acknowledged the existence of multiple problems in its collaborations with the police department, including the fact that requirements set forth in the FBI’s investigative rulebook “MAY be in conflict” with the city guidelines that SFPD officers must follow.
The paper went on to detail how measures intended to promote transparency were untenable for the FBI, and that this was the result local law and policy. SFPD officers are required “to make certain disclosures of their FBI investigative activities,” the white paper said, referring to task force officers’ accountability to local command structure. The FBI, however, prohibits the sharing of classified information. Local cops were thus in a bind, the document noted: failing to abide by local law and policy could result in discipline or dismissal, while compliance with those very same rules could open officers up “to possible criminal exposure for disseminating/disclosing FBI documents to include classified documents.”
“The problems presented by these issues have recurred every year since 2013,” the white paper said, referring to the first full year that San Francisco’s civil rights ordinance was in effect, and they were “driven predominantly” by the existence of annual city compliance reports. “The SFPD Chief of Police can not comply with this ordinance unless the FBI approves and provides the Chief with authorized language/information.”
The FBI could provide the SFPD task force officers with sanitized information, the document noted, but then the bureau would be at risk of inspiring similar acts of transparency nationwide. “This production of sanitized information due to problems specific to the SF JTTF would set a precedent which may lead to similar ACLU requests to other JTTFs.”
“The FBI is concerned about setting a precedent that the ACLU and our partners in communities across the country can use to ask for further transparency,” Talla, the ACLU attorney in San Francisco, said. “The FBI really doesn’t want to set a precedent in having to be transparent anywhere, to any local body.”
As Bennett noted in his letter to Mayor Breed earlier this year, the FBI has more than 100 JTTFs operating across the country, and frequently recruits the “most accomplished and professional officers” from local police departments. Whether those officers’ time and skills are being used in a manner that is both productive and in line with the vision of law enforcement held by the community they are sworn to serve and protect would presumably be of the utmost importance to their chiefs and city leaders.
The FBI’s post-9/11 abandonment of core investigative principles such as reasonable suspicion in favor of creating new categories of investigative activities, like assessments, was “both unnecessary and likely to result in the abuses we’ve seen,” said Michael German, a former FBI special agent, now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.
German, author of “Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy,” which traces the FBI’s post-9/11 evolution, has followed the fight over the JTTF in San Francisco closely. He testified at the hearing last month, telling supervisor Mar that it would be “extremely difficult” for SFPD officers to “meaningfully comply” with local rules on sensitive investigations should the department chose to rejoin the JTTF. The purpose of the hearing was to discuss the publication of a report by a civil grand jury, which had decided somewhat mysteriously to examine the issue of the SFPD’s split from the FBI as a problem that needed to be solved two years after the fact. German met with the jurors and disagreed with several of the conclusions they came to in the report that was ultimately produced.
The white paper was interesting not just for the solutions it recommended, German explained, but also for those it did not. The FBI did not, for example, suggest that it could appeal to the attorney general to restore pre-9/11 investigative standards.
If the FBI is so intent in having SFPD officers on the JTTF, then it should only assign them to full investigations, German said — a prospect that German himself did not endorse. There would still be a problem of officers having access to FBI databases full of information gained through dubious, reasonable suspicion-free assessments, he explained, but at least the SFPD could be sure that its personnel weren’t in a state of constant, potential legal jeopardy. “Of course, the FBI doesn’t want that because they want the agents working the full investigations,” German said. FBI agents have a deeper understanding of FBI rules, he explained, and if they mess up, the bureau can fire them. The same might not be true of a police officer on a JTTF. But it’s also “a matter of prestige,” German explained. “Telling the agents you have to work this nonsense, low-level, garbage leads rather than legitimate investigations would cause quite a controversy within the FBI.”
Two years after the SFPD left the JTTF, the Portland Police Department did the same. The unifying theme running through both cases, German argued, was not that the police departments chose not to participate in the JTTFs — most police departments do not — but that their noncompliance involved calling FBI policy into question. “The FBI doesn’t want to change its policy,” he said. “It wants to change state and local policies to comply with what the FBI wants to accomplish regardless of whether that serves the communities.”
For Crew, the veteran San Francisco civil rights attorney, the disclosure of the white paper offered a sense of relief, a feeling that the “FBI could no longer pretend or claim credibility on these issues.” If the FBI wants to have a public debate about its work with the SFPD, that’s fine, Crew said. The problem, he explained, is that ever since San Francisco passed its ordinance requiring local cops to follow local laws, which according to the white paper marked the beginning of the recurring “problems,” the FBI has been absent from those conversations.
“We’ve been chasing ghosts,” he said.
With the paper’s release, Crew believes that lawmakers and the people of San Francisco are now armed with an important truth: that the FBI spent the last several years hiding behind vague claims of classified secrets and national security to avoid an important public debate about its impact on the city’s hard-won civil rights protections.
“The release of that white paper ends that possibility in San Francisco,” he said. “And it ought to, frankly, end that possibility everywhere. Everybody should understand how local police resources are being used by the FBI, and it ought to be a local choice.”
November 1, 2019
By Ryan Devereaux
[San Francisco City and County] SFPD and FBI illegally collected information on San Franciscans for years
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
The San Francisco Police Department for years coordinated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in violation of local laws and the SFPD’s own policies restricting information-gathering on civilians based on political and religious affiliation, and other activities protected by the First Amendment.
This revelation is laid bare in a whitepaper written by FBI officials and first sent to the SFPD in 2016, in which the FBI states explicitly that it was directing SFPD officers to collect information on individuals, absent suspicion of criminal activity.
That is in direct conflict with the 2012 Safe San Francisco Civil Rights Ordinance. That law, passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors and signed by Mayor Ed Lee, restricts SFPD officers’ ability to participate in precisely those kinds of operations that infringe on the civil liberties of San Franciscans.
Mission Local recently obtained a copy of the whitepaper.
Five years after the passage of the civil rights ordinance, in February 2017, the city cut ties altogether with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). While the task force had been coordinating with the SFPD to ostensibly thwart terrorism threats, it continued to induce concern among groups who argued that the task force targeted immigrants and religious minorities.
Under the 2012 Safe San Francisco Civil Rights Ordinance, SFPD officers are barred from collecting information on activities protected by the First Amendment unless the chief and two other SFPD higher-ups sign off. Between 2014 and 2016 alone, while Police Chief Greg Suhr was in command, no such approval was given in the 119 times SFPD officers assigned to the task force conducted investigations.
Police Commission audits determined that none of those investigations involved “First Amendment activity.”
And, yet, the FBI’s own whitepaper makes clear that the investigations SFPD officers were primarily assigned to “usually involve, on some level, the exercise of First Amendment activities.”
“The core fiction promoted by the SFPD and the FBI had been that the FBI would never assign SFPD officers to … matters that would violate department policy when, in fact, the opposite was true,” said John Crew, a retired ACLU attorney who independently reviewed the white paper.
“Nearly everything the FBI had SFPD do in those years violated local policy.”
The document also appears to contradict statements by FBI Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett in a Jan. 29 letter sent to Mayor London Breed — a letter touting the benefits of the task force. “SFPD officers assigned to the JTTF were expected to abide by their department’s General Orders while serving on the JTTF, and they did,” Bennett wrote.
The whitepaper indicates that officers did not abide by SFPD policies.
The San Francisco Police Department and the FBI were not able to respond to Mission Local’s inquiries by press time. A message left on a recent cell number for Suhr was not immediately returned.
But, in a related story published by The Intercept hours ago, FBI spokesman Prentice Danner said the document was “written by counsel for the San Francisco FBI and provided to the Chief of the San Francisco Police Department in December 2016.” Danner said the FBI disputes the claim that the whitepaper contradicts Bennett’s January letter to Mayor Breed.
In contrast to the FBI, SFPD spokesman David Stevenson told The Intercept that the SFPD first learned of the document in July 2017, and was not aware of instances in which SFPD officers violated department policy and local law. “This paper outlines current legal and policy issues for points of discussion, including potential solutions and actions,” Stevenson told the investigative news site of the 2016 document.
The document, which Mission Local independently obtained, explains that SFPD officers assigned to the task force were primarily assigned to “assessments” — gathering information on people without any demonstrable “reasonable suspicion” of wrongdoing. A 2013 ACLU records request revealed that these assessments could often be baseless, such as: “Suspicious ME [Middle Eastern] Males Buy Several Large Pallets of Water.”
Javeria Jamil, a staff attorney at the Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus, said that when local law enforcement coordinates with the FBI to create files on innocent people, oftentimes immigrants, the results can be disastrous.
She said that every time information is gathered from these so-called assessments, it’s uploaded into a database that can be accessed across federal agencies — including Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“In other words, every time an assessment is opened against an individual, ICE finds out if the person is undocumented or not,” she said. ICE “can then use this information for immigration enforcement, and in fact has done so on multiple occasions.”
The coordination was occurring in San Francisco even as SFPD officials continued to assure the public that the department was in full compliance with its policies and city law.
“SFPD officers have, and will continue to, comply with department policy,” Lt. Darryl Fong told the Police Commission at a Jan. 13, 2016, meeting. “The FBI has not placed the SFPD members in a position at risk of policy violations.”
Furthermore, the FBI memo notes how the specific tasks assigned to the SFPD officers were in contravention to city law, and compliance with the law as it was written would have been a problem with the FBI. For example, SFPD officers participating in the program were required by law to disclose to superiors the nature of their investigations.
“The FBI will not allow such disclosure.” It would be a violation of FBI guidelines.
Sharing such information with SFPD higher-ups for approval, furthermore, “essentially translates to SFPD having oversight of FBI investigations,” which the FBI clearly did not want.
Notably, these issues were raised by the FBI at least three and a half years after the city’s requirements took effect. “The problems presented by these issues have recurred every year since 2013 driven predominantly by the annual SFPD report” to the Office of Citizen Complaints, the whitepaper says.
SFPD’s leadership apparently knew there was a conflict with city law because they sought guidance on how to resolve it. The whitepaper clearly states: “SFPD is seeking guidance on how they can resolve the conflicts between [its policy] and FBI policy.”
Conducting investigations of the sort the 2012 ordinance sought to forbid was, in fact, the vast majority of local police officers’ work with FBI task force.
Mike German, a retired FBI agent and a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said that the SFPD should have known its officers were primarily doing assessments. “It was something I assumed was true,” German said. “Because that’s the bulk of the grunt work.”
The SFPD has been fighting in court to keep the whitepaper out of public view. The Asian Law Caucus, the Council on Islamic-American Relations of California, and PolicyLink in June sued the SFPD to release the whitepaper, arguing that the information is subject to local public records laws. A California Superior Court judge in late August denied their request, arguing that the paper is “property of the federal government” and the SFPD is “prohibited by federal law from disclosing it.” (The groups are appealing the decision.)
The contents of the whitepaper also deeply undercut the conclusions of a July San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report. Its investigation detected no “instance of non-compliance with [department policy] by SFPD officers that had been assigned to the JTTF.” It furthermore set guidelines for the Mayor’s Office and the Police Commission to rejoin the FBI task force. If such a desire existed, a new agreement should be drafted “no later than July 1, 2020,” the grand jury advised.
Evidence of noncompliance made headlines in March 2015, when advocates filed a complaint against the department that alleged an SFPD sergeant and an FBI agent improperly questioned Google software engineer Sarmad Gilani at Google’s San Francisco offices in June, 2014. The Department of Police Accountability, with whom the complaint was filed, found in August 2016 that incident was a result of “inadequate training.”
Jamil added that the whitepaper confirms what she and other advocates have suspected for some time.
“By explicitly discussing conflicts between local regulations and FBI rules, both parties demonstrated that they have knowingly violated local law and policy all along,” she said. “The whitepaper also signals that the SFPD has been misleading everyone since 2012, when they first stated that SFPD officers participating in the JTTF were complying with local laws.”
November 1, 2019
By Julian Mark
[Marin County] Marin Voice (opinion): Proposed wildlife prevention authority is key to county’s preparation
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
This past week, we all received a sober reminder of the direct impact wildfire can have on our lives and our safety. From the devastating Kincade fire up north, to last week’s Muir fire in West Marin, to the ongoing power shutoffs and smoke, we are all experiencing the reality that wildfire is a constant threat in California. This is especially true for communities like Marin, with lush vegetation and development intermixed with areas of natural wildlands. While Marin’s local fire and emergency service agencies are prepared as first responders, there is no countywide coordinated program for proactive preparedness, prevention and education.
Over the past several months, Marin’s fire chiefs, city and town managers, and the County of Marin, have worked together to create the legal and conceptual framework for establishing a single coordinated joint powers authority called the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority in order to implement a comprehensive wildfire prevention and emergency preparedness initiative with the following goals:
• Improving emergency alert and warning systems ensuring early, organized and safer evacuations
• Improving evacuation routes and infrastructure to enhance traffic flow and promote organized, safer evacuations
• Expanding coordinated efforts to reduce hazardous vegetation
• Expanding and enhancing defensible space and home-hardening evaluations while educating homeowners how to reduce the ignitability of their home and neighborhood from wildfires
• Providing grants and support to seniors, low-income homeowners and those with access and functional needs who may need assistance maintaining defensible space and making their homes fire resistant
• Creating and sustaining a coordinated and neighborhood wildfire public safety and preparedness program
Several reports published in recent years have highlighted the need for increased coordination on wildfire prevention and preparedness in Marin. The 2016 Marin County “Community Wildfire Protection Plan,” and 2018 “Lessons Learned — North Bay Fire Siege” report, and this year’s “Marin Civil Grand Jury Report Wildfire Preparedness: A New Approach,” all emphasize the importance of a countywide, multi-agency approach to better prepare and protect our residents.
Since July, fire chiefs have conducted over 50 public informational meetings in communities throughout Marin to collect community input on the proposed coordinated wildfire prevention and preparedness initiative. Seventeen public agencies responsible for fire services, who have taxing authority in Marin, have joined the MWPA and supported placing a countywide parcel tax on the March 2020 ballot to fund the identified wildfire preparedness, prevention and mitigation efforts.
The proposed funding measure — to be considered by Marin voters in March of 2020 — would levy up to 10 cents per building square foot and provide approximately $20 million annually for 10 years in dedicated, locally controlled funding to be used only for wildfire preparedness, prevention and mitigation projects. All funds generated by the proposed measure would stay in Marin and could not be taken by the state. An independent citizens’ oversight committee and annual audits would ensure funds are used only for wildfire prevention, preparedness and mitigation efforts. Additionally, the new revenue source would help Marin qualify for state and federal grants that otherwise will go to other counties.
This coordinated effort, supported by over 85 elected officials and encompassing 98% of the land mass within Marin County and 96% of Marin’s population, has received broad support from the community. The Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers, Marin Conservation League, FireSafe Marin, Firewise Neighborhood Groups and Citizens for Wildfire Preparedness have all stepped forward in support of this coordinated program for proactive preparedness, prevention and education.
Marin has been fortunate to avoid any recent, large and damaging wildfires. The time to act is now. Local fire agencies and communities must come together and implement wildfire prevention and preparedness through improved planning for organized evacuations, maintaining defensible space, reducing combustible vegetation and making homes fire resistant. Individual homes and properties are more fire resilient when preparedness is approached at the community scale. A collective effort by all citizens and property owners is necessary to build a resilient community and reduce the threat of wildfire to life, property, and our local infrastructure.
October 31, 2019
Marin Independent Journal
By Bill Tyler (president of the Marin County Fire Chiefs Association and fire chief of the Novato Fire Protection District) and Jason Weber (fire chief of the Marin County Fire Department)
Friday, November 29, 2019
Blog note: this letter references a grand jury report.
Cable television companies like Comcast conduct their business in the public right-of-way and for decades have paid fees to cities for that privilege. Now Trump’s FCC and Comcast believe they are paying too much, and Marin government is up in arms about potential lost revenues. I’m no fan of either the FCC or Comcast, but let’s unpack this story.
The Marin Telecommunications Agency receives $4.3 million each year in cable franchise fees, which are collected by Comcast from cable television subscribers on their monthly invoices and passed through to the MTA. Comcast wants to reduce those fees to remain at parity with their competitors. The MTA claims this takes money out of the pockets of local governments and puts it in the pockets of cable operators and their shareholders. That’s not true. Any reduction in fees leaves charges off the consumer’s invoice and in their pocket, which is a good thing.
Of the $4.3 million, the first $250,000 goes to fund the MTA’s annual operations. The Marin County Civil Grand Jury spent the last year evaluating the MTA and recommended the agency be dissolved for lack of public benefit. Predictably, the government disagreed, even though the agency has few tasks and no projects, manages one contract and is, by their admission, a telecommunications agency in name only.
I’m sympathetic when government loses a steady revenue stream, but not when it ignores the considered will and advice of the people to tighten the belt.
October 30, 2019
Marin Independent Journal
Letter by Bruce Vogen, San Anselmo
Blog note: this article references a 2013 grand jury report.
October 28, 2019 -- Santa Monica's audit subcommittee -- created four years ago to increase financial transparency -- will no longer directly receive and respond to ethics complaints.
On Tuesday, the City Council voted to revise the subcommittee's role to instead "clearly support" the City's confidential 24-hour ethics hotline "as the primary method to report suspected illegal or improper activity."
The hotline was established as part of a Code of Ethics for all City employees in November 2015, four months after the subcommittee was created.
"The City aims to make reporting potential ethics violations as simple, clear, and straightforward as possible," staff said in its report to the Council.
"While Audit Subcommittee members may hear about concerns or complaints, it is more complicated to publicize this part of their role or direct complaints to them," according to staff.
The current system, staff said, "places a burden" on members of the Audit Subcommittee, which is composed of three Council members and two community members who are experts in governance and have auditing experience.
Under the current system, the procedure for following up on a complaint is "less clear" and "may be very difficult to standardize," staff said.
"Having one recommended method for anonymous complaints removes any confusion about the appropriate path to follow for reporting."
Complaints made on the hotline are received and logged by MYECCHO, a third-party vendor contracted by the City, staff said.
The vendor forwards each complaint "to the appropriate party in the City Attorney’s Office or Human Resources Department for handling."
The Audit subcommittee, which meets three times a year, was created by Council resolution in July 2015 to oversee audits of the City’s biennial budgets ("Santa Monica City Council Approves Subcommittee for Budget," July 30, 2015).
It was proposed after a Los Angeles County Civil Grand Jury report released in 2013 found Santa Monica’s governance and financial management practices were among the worst in the County.
The City vigorously disputed the results of the report but followed its recommendation to create an audit committee to act as a watchdog of auditors, without engaging in the auditing itself.
Among the subcommittee's duties originally approved by the council was to "provide an alternative way for employees, taxpayers, or other citizens to confidentially report suspected illegal, improper, wasteful or fraudulent activity.”
October 28, 2019
Santa Monica Lookout
By Jorge Casuso