A proposal to require the San Francisco Police Department to adhere to local and state privacy laws while conducting federal counterterrorism investigations was approved by a committee of the city’s Board of Supervisors today.
The ordinance, which will now go to the full board, focuses on how the Police Department collaborates with the FBI and its local Joint Terrorism Task Force while collecting intelligence about potential terrorism cases in the region.
The FBI, under a 2007 memorandum of understanding with the department, authorizes a variety of intelligence gathering activities not permitted under state or city laws, most notably the surveillance of someone without any suspicion of criminal activity or factual criminal predicate.
The legislation being put forward by Supervisor Jane Kim and five other co-sponsors calls on police Chief Greg Suhr and the Police Commission to amend or terminate the 2007 MOU, saying it conflicts with not just city and state privacy laws but also internal department policies.
Kim said the idea for the ordinance “came to us from the community because of concerns about racial profiling and intimidation” in the Arab and Asian communities.
Dozens of people came to City Hall to speak at today’s committee hearing, many of whom relayed fear over government surveillance and told stories of persecution based on their religious beliefs, race or background.
Nasrina Bargzie, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, recalled disputing the comment of a co-worker who said in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, that “everyone in Afghanistan should die.”
Bargzie, who immigrated from Afghanistan, said that after her harmless response to the co-worker, she was soon brought in for questioning by the FBI.
“This is real,” she said. “The Arab-Middle Eastern community has been subject to discrimination and intimidation.”
Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said, “None of my clients have ever been charged with a crime but many have been questioned about their religious beliefs.”
Billoo said she supported the ordinance because “restoring local control over intelligence gathering will regain trust in law enforcement.”
The legislation is modeled after a similar one passed in Portland, Ore. last year.
Supervisor Eric Mar joked that he was happy to follow in the footsteps of that city, saying he’s a “big fan” of the offbeat sketch comedy show “Portlandia,” and said the ordinance would help “San Francisco to get in the lead on these issues.”
The public safety committee eventually unanimously recommended sending the legislation to the full board for a vote.
Police spokesman Sgt. Mike Andraychak said the purpose of the legislation was already addressed in an internal department Bureau Order issued by Suhr last May shortly after he was appointed as chief.
That order states that “officers who work with the JTTF remain in the chain of command and under the supervision of SFPD and must comply with Department policies at all times,” as well as state laws that might be more restrictive than the federal ones.
Andraychak said the department “has been and continues to work with those interested organizations and parties to address their concerns” and “will continue its policy of openness and transparency.”
As for the FBI, spokeswoman Julianne Sohn declined to comment on the pending legislation.
However, Sohn passed along a letter sent to local civil rights groups last September by Special Agent Stephanie Douglas, who is in charge of the bureau’s San Francisco office.
In the letter, Douglas emphasized that “the FBI does not nor can it open any investigation based solely on race, ethnicity or any first amendment protected activity” and wrote that she “will ensure SFPD does not receive any case inconsistent with its general orders.”
Dan McMenamin, Bay City News