Getting away with murder in the city of St. Francis
justice in 3 out of 4 homicides; killers at large
year ago, a young mother was stabbed to death in her Richmond
district apartment by a former boyfriend in front of her two
children. Now her mother asks for one thing — justice.
want the police to catch him. I want justice for my daughter,”
Clara Tempongko, the mother of the victim, told approximately 20
family members and supporters who gathered Oct. 22 for a vigil in
front of her daughter’s 22nd Avenue apartment.
justice is something that occurs in only 25 percent of homicide
cases in San Francisco.
to statistics obtained from the homicide unit of the SF Police
Department and the California department of justice, police make
arrests in 41 percent of homicide cases and the District Attorney
convicts 61 percent of those arrested.
Francisco’s arrest rate lags behind the neighboring cities of
Oakland (46 percent) and San Jose (75 percent), cities with similar
populations (58 percent) and falls 17 percent below the national
average (67 percent).
Richmond District mirrors the citywide arrest rate, with seven
homicides committed between 1996 and 2000 that resulted in two
arrests and one warrant being issued for a suspect.
closer look at the criminal justice system reveals that many factors
contribute to the dismal picture: An over-worked homicide unit, the
reluctance of witnesses to come forward in gang-related homicides,
an under-staffed crime laboratory that is months behind producing
critical reports, a Crime Scene Investigations team so under-staffed
that it could compromise evidence, a District Attorney’s Office
that only prosecutes “rock-solid cases,” according to some
officials, and a slow, out-dated computer system.
Francisco Mayor Willie Brown recently cited the Tempongko murder as
an example of why the criminal justice system needs a new computer
system. The new system is designed so critical information can be
shared easily between the police, sheriff, District Attorney,
courts, and state and federal agencies.
one month before her death on Oct. 22, 2000, Clair Joyce Tempongko,
28, called police twice to her apartment to report that her
ex-boyfriend, Tari Ramirez, had choked and threatened her.
of the police reports never made it to the district attorney’s
office and the Adult Probation Department. When Ramirez went before
a judge for an unrelated incident last September, he could have been
sentenced to jail for a parole violation if the judge had been made
aware of the recent incidents.
Ramirez was sentenced to 30 days in a work alternative program and
then he went after Tempongko. Police now believe Ramirez has fled to
familiar with San Francisco’s criminal justice system expressed
surprise at the low arrest, or “solve” rate.
low solve rate on homicides shocks me,” said Linda Klee, the
criminal trial chief attorney for SF District Attorney Terence
Keane, dean of the Golden Gate University Law School and chief
assistant San Francisco public defender from 1979 to 1998,
sounds very low to me,” Keane said. “Homicides are the category
of crime that is the most solvable.”
asked to comment on the low arrest rate, Mayor Brown, through his
press secretary, referred all questions to Police Chief Fred Lau.
Lau declined our request for an interview and referred all questions
to his public relations spokesperson, Dewayne Tully.
blamed the low arrest rate, in part, on the lack of cooperation by
witnesses in gang and drug-related shootings.
a disproportionately high number of gang and drug-related shootings
have recently contributed to the number of homicides and because
witnesses in such killings are historically reluctant to come
forward, many of these killings remain unsolved,” Tully said.
also said the statistics do not account for homicides that are
I can tell you is that homicide solving goes beyond investigators
following a step-by-step procedure that, at the end of a set period
of time, yields a suspect,” he said.
Tully’s remarks fail to explain why the city of Oakland, which is
known for its historically high number of gang and drug-related
shootings, does a better job of solving its homicide cases. While
Oakland’s homicide unit recently had the same number of
investigators and a much higher number of homicides that San
Francisco, its arrest rate is higher — 46 percent versus 41
the other end of the spectrum is San Jose. This Bay Area city, which
also has a high number of gang and drug-related homicides, has about
one-half the homicides and until recently three more investigators
that San Francisco. It also has a 75 percent arrest rate.
reluctant to come forward in gang-related cases
year, when a number of shootings erupted in the Hunters Point/Bayview
community between rival street gangs, the SFPD brought 34-year
veteran homicide Inspector Napoleon (Nap) Hendrix out of retirement
to help solve a backlog of “cold cases.”
department is banking on the goodwill and trust Hendrix has built up
over the years with the African-American community and new
DNA-identification technology recently acquired by the city’s
crime laboratory to solve gang-related homicides that now languish
in file drawers.
just how many unsolved homicide cases there are in those file
drawers remains a mystery. Even Capt. Roy Sullivan, who heads up the
police department’s homicide unit, did not know.
really couldn’t say. I don’t have an exact number. Homicides
cases from years back remain open until they are solved,” Sullivan
did say that several new investigators were recently added to the
homicide unit, bringing the staff up to 13. The unit is still down
one from its traditional number of 14. Sullivan said the heavy
workload was a major cause for getting the additional officers.
unit was fatigued because of the caseload. We were concerned about
burnout,” he said.
also stressed that when gang members are involved in homicides,
members of the gang often help hide the suspect from the police or
give them money to leave town. He said it is not unusual for gang
members to flee to another large city where they can blend into the
population and escape detection.
believe this may have happened two years ago when an argument over a
game of pool at a local watering hole in the Outer Sunset District
led to the murder of an innocent bystander, Robert Sadler.
homicide shocks Sunset
murder, one of 58 in the city in 1999, shocked neighbors in this
quiet bedroom community which saw its homicide rate climb to a
five-year high. Sadler’s murder was one of the most chilling and
cold-blooded in recent memory.
1999, the year of his murder, the number of homicides in the Taraval
police district spiraled to an unprecedented nine, up from five in
1998 and three in 1997.
the identities of Sadler’s killers were known to police at the
time of his murder, no arrests have been made and the odds are that
his killers will never serve a day in jail for their crime.
to sources familiar with the case, several young Asian males,
identified as members of the Jackson Street Boys, a violent street
gang, were thrown out of the club earlier in the evening for
fighting and vowed to return for revenge.
Sadler’s only involvement was to break up the altercation and calm
tempers down, he ended up paying with his life.
to witnesses, the young men returned to the bar about 1 a.m. in a
car and fired a weapon through a window. One man was wounded and
Sadler was hit in the chest. He died in the arms of his fiancée
before help could arrive.
justice system riddled with problems, staff shortages
families of victims cry out for justice, what they often find
instead is an understaffed, underfunded, politically driven criminal
justice system that is working hard but failing to deliver closure
to grieving families.
addition to a backlog of unsolved cases and a short-staffed homicide
unit, the Crime Scene Investigations (CSI) team, a critical
component in the criminal justice system, is short six
a homicide occurs, a central dispatcher calls a homicide team, the
coroner, an ambulance, and a member of the Crime Scene
witnesses are not available, the coroner’s report, which
determines the cause and time of death, is often crucial to solving
CSI investigator is called to the crime scene to collect the
physical evidence that is routinely used by homicide officers to
identify suspects. Eventually, the district attorney uses the
evidence collected at the crime scene to build a convincing case in
of this team are seasoned veterans and many have years of special
training. It takes about 10 years before an officer has the rank and
seasoning to apply for a position on the team. In addition to
collecting physical evidence, investigators also take photographs,
make a diagram of the crime scene and process any finger and palm
summer the CSI team received a new $2.5 million computer system, the
Palmprint AFIS, that it hopes will make a serious dent in solving
all crimes, including homicides. The new technology allows an
investigator to scan palm prints into a system that searches for
matches in national and state data bases. Called “cold hits” by
police, the instantaneous matches provide police officers with
palm prints represent about 30 percent of all prints found at crime
scenes, Jim Norris, the director of the Forensic Services Division,
believes the new technology will prove to be a good weapon for
Norris says a biggest threat to solving homicides is the recent
retirement of seasoned investigators.
CSI team, which normally has 20 investigators, is down about 30
percent. Not only has the shortage led to a morale problem within
the unit, but Norris is concerned about compromising evidence.
Norris explained that if two homicides occurred at the same time,
the team is so understaffed it could not effectively respond.
we had two serious homicide cases back-to-back we would have a
problem. It will compromise the evidence. There is absolutely no
question about it,” he said.
lab understaffed and underfunded
the CSI team collects and secures physical evidence at a crime
scene, it is analyzed by criminalists in a new state-of-the-art
crime laboratory at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
to 1999, the lab operated out of a dingy, ill-equipped room at the
Hall of justice. When the state refused to accredit the lab because
of its inadequacies, DNA evidence had to be shipped out to external
laboratories for analysis.
accreditation failed, city representatives acquired land from the
Redevelopment Agency and converted a building that was used as a
postal facility during the Gulf War into a new laboratory.
prior facility was not adequate to ensure that we would not
contaminate evidence,” explained Martha Blake, a senior
criminalist who oversees the laboratory.
new lab is equipped with the latest technology and is in the process
of getting its accreditation from the state. About one-half of the
police crime laboratories in the country are currently accredited.
the present time, the lab is operating with 17 civil service
criminalists, 4 of which hold the title of senior criminalist. Two
police officers are also assigned to the crime lab.
the crime laboratory, like the CSI team, is understaffed. The
situation is particularly critical with DNA and Blake says she could
easily use double the staff to process DNA evidence.
though DNA evidence is critical in homicide cases, according to
Blake homicide officers routinely wait two to three months for DNA
to be processed. Blake says she runs into homicide officers at the
Hall of Justice all the time who ask when their DNA reports will be
the biggest gripe I get around there,” she said.
Coddington, a criminalist at the crime laboratory who specializes in
firearms, says his unit also needs about twice the staff.
June, the firearms division of the crime laboratory acquired a new
system that allows it to image cartridge cases, enter the
information into a national data base, and make “cold hits” or
matches. While Coddington is enthusiastic about the new technology,
he explained that his unit lacks the manpower to input data.
in terms of building up a data base — that’s what we are way
behind on. We could probably use twice the staff just to get the
data into the system,” Coddington said.
order to attract a quality staff and keep the professional staff it
now has, Blake wants more funds for training and for memberships in
entire budget for professional training for the year is $5,000. The
city of Oakland pays for membership in two professional
organizations for its personnel — we don’t pay for one,” Blake
low prosecution rate lamented by head of crime lab
leveled harsh criticism at the district attorney for failing to
prosecute cases, including homicides, where strong physical evidence
has been documented.
frustrating. We work hard to put together good evidence and they
often times don’t take risks. The DA’s office only wants to take
cases they can win,” she said.
Attorney Terence Hallinan, who has come under fire from the mayor in
the past for being lax on prosecuting violent crimes, declined to be
response to written question about Blake’s statement, Fred
Gardner, a public relations spokesman for Hallinan, wrote only, “We
have a different standard.”
Hallinan’s chief trial attorney, Linda Klee, says many factors
make homicide cases more difficult to prosecute. According to Klee,
a lack of witnesses in gang-related cases, understaffing, grants
that tie the agencies’ hands, the fact that homicides cases take
two to three years to prosecute, and liberal juries all contribute
to the problem.
said out of a staff of 120 attorneys only 30 to 35 handle a limited
number of cases over a longer period of time, which she called “vertical
to Klee, short-staffing forces cases to bounce back and forth
between attorneys rather than on a district attorney handling most
of the case from beginning to end.
need to do more cases vertically. We don’t’ have the resources,”
homicide cases routinely take years to prosecute and the DA’s
office claims to be short-staffed, Klee says that five deputy
attorneys are assigned to homicide cases.
motions start rolling in, it can take two to three years to trial,”
department opts out of computer system
Mayor Willie Brown’s Crime Summit in March, figures were released
that show a 27 percent increase in the police department’s budget
from fiscal 1995-96 through 2000-01.
the same time period, the district attorney’s office received a
57.3 percent increase in its budget.
of an increase in this year’s budget will be allocated to a new $4
million computer system to replace the aging technology now used by
the criminal justice community.
old Case Management System (7), which was considered revolutionary
in 1975, is so outdated that many criminal justice agencies are
developing their own internal systems, an act that threatens the
historically integrated model.
new system, called JUSTIS, would instantaneously link vital
components of the city’s criminal justice system, as well as
access information from state and federal systems, on one screen.
several departments, including the police and sheriff, have declined
to participate in the project.
the sheriff and police are embroiled in bringing up their own
system,” said Dwight Hunter, the project director for the JUSTIS
explained that convincing San Francisco police officers to convert
to the new system was a hard sell. He said he believes that broken
promises in the past are one reason why the department decided to
work on its own system. Hunter also said part of the problem is
normal resistance to change.
tried. We went to the police and asked them how we could design a
system that works for them,” he said.
to Hunter, the new system has major advantages over the old network
for everyone. He explained that the new system would allow police
officers to instantaneously access on one screen the entire criminal
history of a suspect, including state and federal information in
seconds, complete with graphics.
current system does not have direct links to the information and has
to be accessed by going in and out of different data banks. The new
system would have all information contained within a single
they are using now — it would make you weep,” Hunter said.
major hurdle the project still faces is funding. Hunter says that to
hook up everyone that wants the new system would cost the city more
than $5 million this fiscal year.
the city made a verbal promise of $4 million, Hunter was told that
$750,000 of that amount will not be available. Hunter says
the District Attorney’s Office, the Adult Probation Department,
and the Public Defender’s Office are expected to fully convert to
the new system this year.