The Badge — SF police confront gangs by setting up drug 'buy-busts'
By John Koopman
SAN FRANCISCO — It's early evening, and dark. A San Francisco police officer, dressed like a street person, walks into Hallidie Plaza looking to score some weed. Another undercover cop shadows the first one, and delivers a play-by-play description into a microphone hidden in his lapel.
The undercover cops keep walking, as four teams of cops swoop in to make the arrest.
"He's running," an officer says calmly over the radio. "West on Market."
Inspector Kevin Labanowski drives down Cyril Magnin and tries to make a quick right on Market. He threads the unmarked car through three people in the crosswalk in what would be an illegal maneuver if done by a civilian.
"What the f- are you doing, -hole?" a man yells at the officer, who waves and says, "Sorry about that."
Half a block away, members of the SFPD Gang Task Force have a man on his knees in front of an office building. The cuffs are on. One cop takes cash from the man's pocket and finds a mark that had been placed on it before the operation.
It's still early in the evening. The bust goes down on the edge of a prime tourist area. Dozens of people pass by.
"Welcome to San Francisco," one officer says to no one in particular.
Buying drugs in San Francisco is as easy as buying a pack of gum at Walgreens.
On this night, the cops have singled out the Tenderloin, which is probably the most drug-riddled piece of real estate in the Bay Area. Walk down Turk or O'Farrell, and you will probably see someone smoking rock. And the dealers are on every block.
Simple drug busts don't seem to make much of a dent in the action. But that's not why these officers make what they call "buy-busts." The Gang Task Force uses the busts as a tool for dealing with gang members in the city.
So busting gang members dealing drugs gives the Gang Task Force another enforcement tool. Maybe the guy will try to escape prosecution by giving evidence in another, bigger case. At a minimum, the drug case might mean the individual goes to jail for a while, or gets put on probation, which gives the cops authority to stop him at will and search him.
So the team organizes regular buy-bust raids like this one. Since May 4, the Gang Task Force has made 297 such arrests, 146 of them in the Tenderloin. They do it often enough that the process works like a well-oiled machine. There is the undercover team that makes the buys and several two-person teams that make the arrests. Each team is then responsible for an individual arrest and the resulting paperwork.
This is how easy it is: One day this week, four teams go out shortly after 8 p.m. By 9:15, they've made four busts. Nothing big here, small-time drug deals of $20 or $40 for a bag of marijuana or rock or two of crack cocaine. It takes about 15 minutes to stop, detain, cuff and search each suspected drug dealer, and then fill out the field paperwork.
It's all very efficient.
Labanowski and Sgt. Mike Browne take the first bust, the one at Hallidie Plaza. This is a marijuana sale, Labanowski says. You can get whatever drugs you want throughout the Tenderloin, but marijuana is the big seller right off the cable car turnaround.
"Hey, man, that's my money!" the man says as the officers take the cash he allegedly took for drugs. "I didn't do nothing. I didn't steal nothing."
"What do you think, we just picked you out of the crowd?" Browne responds.
The man says he's from Honduras. Browne asks if he's "Salvatrucha," a gang relatively new to the United States and made up mostly of immigrants from El Salvador. He says no. Moments later, he's in the back of a car on his way to the Tenderloin Station, and the team moves a few blocks away to look for another bust.
At Larkin and Ellis, they grab two more men for selling crack. They both say they're 17, making them underage.
"What year were you born?" Browne asks in Spanish. The men look skyward and think, then respond in Spanish.
"Yeah, it's hard to do that math, isn't it?" one officer says with a laugh. But the two suspects don't show any criminal record, so it's impossible to know if they're really underage or if they're just trying to pull one over.
Nevertheless, they're on their way to a holding cell, too, and the cops work their way over to O'Farrell for yet another quick crack bust. It's just one young man this time. The officers surround the man and put on the cuffs.
A young man watches the bust as he rides by on a bicycle.
"It's about time," he says to the cops.
Copyright 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle
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