In the wake of a massive scandal over the alleged misconduct of a group of SFPD officers, a spat has arisen between the police department and the Public Defender’s office over the department’s use of master keys to enter rooms in San Francisco’s many residential hotels.
Last week, Public Defender Jeff Adachi sent a letter to police Chief Jeff Godown asking him to discontinue the practice of using the keys because of an alleged pattern of officers using them in a way that Adachi says violates fourth amendment safeguards against illegal search and seizure.
Godown bluntly denied Adachi’s request, comparing the use of the keys as, “no different than someone booting down the door with their foot or using a ram.”
Department spokesman Lt. Troy Dangerfield argued that, “the problem with saying ‘never use a (master) key’ is well-being checks, where family members or friends request officers to check on someone who hasn’t responded.”
At issue, is the series of surveillance videos released by Adachi’s office showing a unit of eight plainclothes officers using master keys to illegally enter rooms at Tenderloin residential hotels.
The videos show officers going into rooms without identifying themselves or displaying their badges. This evidence often ran contrary to what the officers specified in their reports. In one case, officers entered the apartment of a 28-year old disabled man on the suspicion of the possession of illegal narcotics. Their reports claimed they had checked that the man had an active warrant before entering, but records show they didn’t actually do so until after the arrest was made.
In another case, a hotel owner claimed he was assaulted by an officer demanding use of the building’s master key.
As of this week, approximately 60 pending cases initially handled by the unit have been dropped. The eight officers themselves have been reassigned but remain on active duty. The entire undercover narcotics unit at SFPD’s Southern Station has been put on indefinite hiatus.
District Attorney George Gascon pledged an investigation into the alleged misconduct, however, because of the obvious conflict of interest due to his former role role as SFPD’s top cop, Gascon has since turned the investigation over to the FBI. At the outset, Gascon didn’t feel the need to recuse himself, but, in a statement late last week, he said that, “new information has come to light that indicates it is better to turn over this investigation to the FBI.”
Residential hotels are a long-standing San Francisco tradition and have housed everyone from legendary film director Frank Capara to dead Grateful Dead great Jerry Garcia. In recent years, they’ve even become trendy tourist hot spots. Once the most prevalent form of housing in the city, just under 5% of San Francisco’s population currently resides in residential hotels. Over the past decades, there’s been a gradual demolishing of these hotels as the city has gentrified. However, that wave of gentrification has spared areas in the Tenderloin, leaving it with the lion’s share of city’s residential hotels.