09/24/2007

The Badge — SF police confront gangs by setting up drug 'buy-busts'

 

The relationship between the media and law enforcement is often adversarial. Reporters appear to seek the sensational elements of a crime story, often to the detriment of the police, and officers tend to be uncooperative with journalists they seem to instinctively mistrust.

Not so with “The Badge,” a new series presented by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter/photographer team embedded with the SFPD. Kudos to the Chronicle for pursuing this series and to the officers who willingly put themselves in the media spotlight in the hopes of helping civilians develop a better understanding of life behind the badge. You’re putting a human face on “the police,” which will benefit us all.

 
Read the full "Badge" series

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.


Sgt. Mike Browne (with clipboard) and other members of the Gang Task Force arrest a suspect.
"OK, they're talking, they're talking," the voice crackles over the radio in an unmarked police car idling nearby. "They're moving to the side. OK, he's showing product. Got it. Deal is done."

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.


Sgt. Mike Browne (left) and Officer Damon Jackson arrest a man suspected of selling marijuana near the Powell Street BART Station.
Much of the drug dealing is done by gang members, says Inspector Kevin Labanowski. In fact, a lot of the violence and mayhem in places like the Tenderloin and the Mission District stem from turf wars over drug dealing.

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.


Crack cocaine, seized in the arrests, is bagged for evidence by the Gang Task Force officers.
Later, they gather at the Tenderloin Station to fill out reports. One at a time, each team debriefs with the undercover officer, who describes the busts. The teams give him the marked bills they took off the suspects, and he gives them the drugs he says he bought from them.

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.

A few minutes later, the officers move on to U.N. Plaza. This bust takes just a few minutes, too. There, in sight of City Hall, the cops nab a young Latino man and his girlfriend for selling crack to the undercover officer. They don't speak much English. After some questioning, they call the undercover team to find out if the girl was involved. They say she didn't do anything, so the cops release her, like fishermen letting go a too-small trout.

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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