Legislation that requires San Francisco police to adhere to city and state laws while assisting in federal counterterrorism investigations was signed into law Wednesday by Mayor Ed Lee, a move that was lauded by local civil rights groups.
The new law focuses on how the Police Department collaborates with the FBI and its local Joint Terrorism Task Force, a collection of law enforcement agencies that assist in gathering intelligence in possible terrorism-related cases.
Lee said the law will allow the city to codify “the balance between civil liberties and public safety,” and help it avoid having to “say sorry for something we always could have prevented.”
The Board of Supervisors gave the legislation unanimous initial approval last week and took the final vote on Tuesday. An earlier, farther-reaching version of the legislation was vetoed by Lee last month.
Supervisor Jane Kim, who authored the proposal, said, “We’re really taking a historic step,” but acknowledged “it’s been a really challenging and difficult process for all of us.”
The earlier legislation contained restrictions that pertained to a memorandum of understanding between the FBI and San Francisco police, in which the federal agency authorizes a variety of intelligence gathering activities not allowed under state law, such as the surveillance of someone not suspected of a crime.
Police Chief Greg Suhr had opposed that version of the legislation, saying it would essentially force San Francisco police to leave the task force by barring it from entering into the MOU.
The new law still requires police to adhere to local and state laws, but does not compel the department to include any such language in an agreement with the FBI.
However, it does order the police chief to submit any proposed MOU for discussion at an open Police Commission hearing and to provide the commission with a yearly update on the department’s work with the task force.
Suhr said the law will not change anything about how the department operates, since it has previously addressed the issue by holding officers to the stricter standard via internal policies and procedures. However, he said, the law is still important for the city.
“Perception is reality when it comes to feeling safe,” he said. “If this legislation has people feeling that there’s something in place that makes them feel more secure about their civil rights, then that’s a good thing.”
Local civil rights groups lauded the new law at Wednesday’s news conference.
Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a founder of the group Coalition for Safe San Francisco, said he feels the law will help combat discrimination by authorities against minority groups, particularly the Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian communities.
“It doesn’t matter how many pat downs, wire checks, GPS tracking devices … these things are not going to make us safe,” Alkhanshali said. “What’s going to make us safe is that the community members are coming together … and working together side by side.”
Dan McMenamin, Bay City News