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March 10, 2003


Tip Of The Iceberg

Pattern Of SFPD Cover-Ups Runs Deeper Than Present Crisis

By Van Jones, esq.
Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

It is ironic that the present SFPD scandal was sparked by three off-duty officers beating two civilians ­ especially considering that both civilians survived. SFPD officers have killed civilians and behaved horribly afterward ­ without arousing such passions. The sad (and under-reported) truth is this: the shady conduct making headlines today is part of a long-standing pattern of SFPD cover-ups after questionable police activity. This has been going on for years.

Take the 2002 killing of Gregory Hooper. While on a date with his girlfriend, off-duty officer Steve Lee got into a fistfight with Hooper, a black street vendor.

Eyewitnesses reported that after the fight ended, Lee shot the unarmed Hooper four times in the chest at point-blank range. Numerous witnesses told the San Francisco Chronicle that Lee fired not in self-defense but in revenge.

And Lee had a record of off-duty misconduct, having been cited previously by Office of Citizen Complaints. But the SFPD and DA quickly exonerated the officer.

Let’s be clear about the significance of this case: last year, an off-duty SFPD officer shot an unarmed man to death ­ and got away with it. No wonder Fagan Junior and the gang thought they could rough up a few guys with impunity.

And who can forget the cover-up following the May 1998 police shooting of 17-year-old Sheila Detoy? To arrest 22-year-old Raymondo Cox for missing a court date, plainclothes officer Gregory Breslin rushed toward a car full of unarmed youths with his gun drawn. As panicked driver Michael Negron sped around Breslin, the officer opened fire, killing Detoy and hitting Negron in the back.

Breslin, who previously had been disciplined for covering up police brutality, said he fired in self-defense as the youth tried to run him down. Within hours, the lead SFPD homicide investigator was in the media pronouncing the shooting “justifiable.”

But all of the bullets had come from beside and behind the car ­ indicating that the officer fired in anger as the car drove past, not toward, him. Those facts would earn an ordinary citizen a murder or manslaughter charge. Instead, the SFPD homicide investigator was defending the shooting to the press.

Smelling a cover-up, Bay Area PoliceWatch tried to get the fishy investigator removed from the case ­ to no avail. In the end, the City quietly paid Detoy’s family $100,000. But the SFPD and DA’s office fully exonerated Breslin, who has since been promoted! Most observers of the case were disgusted.

But guess who the odd-acting investigator in the Detoy case was? Then-Lt. David Robinson (now under indictment for allegedly covering up the Fagan Junior incident).

It doesn’t stop there. In March 2002, five officers opened fire on a 100-pound, mentally disabled black man named Richard Tims, killing him. The barrage of bullets destroyed a bus shelter, sprayed the block, and felled bystander Vilda Curry ­ forever robbing the 39-year-old mother of her ovary and the use of her leg.

Five cops should have been able to take the feeble Mr. Tims's knife without firing a single bullet. Instead, they shot two people. All officers were cleared in that case, too.

And after police gunned down honor student Idriss Stelley at the Metreon in 2001, the family couldn’t even get a police report or find out which officers were on the scene for nearly a year.

The true scandal is not about three drunk cops acting up, and benefiting from a one-time cover-up. The scandal is that the SFPD has been behaving just like this for years.

Many reforms are necessary. The Board of Supervisors should be empowered to appoint some members to the Police Commission, so that timid little body can stand up to the Chief and the mayor on tough cases. And the DA’s office needs to establish a permanent “Blue Desk,” to prosecute criminal police abuse.

And we all need to be less trusting of a department that consistently chooses to cover up problems that it should be working overtime to clean up.


Van Jones, a Yale-educated attorney, is founder of Bay Area PoliceWatch and long-time police watchdog.