By JESSE McKINLEY
SAN FRANCISCO — With a group of undercover police officers under suspicion of perjury and conducting illegal searches, the San Francisco district attorney said Wednesday that his office would drop dozens of drug and robbery cases and continue to investigate scores more for possible dismissal.
District Attorney George Gascón, himself a former chief of police, said that 57 cases would be dropped initially and that his office was “getting deeply into this process” of examining others, perhaps dating several years back.
The investigation has been prompted by a series of surveillance videotapes — released by Jeff Adachi, the city’s public defender, and private defense lawyers — showing officers suspected of falsifying reports, illegally entering residences and, in one instance, making a purposefully flawed arrest for drug possession.
“This is not a game,” Mr. Gascón said. “This is real, this involves people’s lives, not only for those who have been incarcerated, but for victims.”
Mr. Gascón made his announcement even as federal agents continued to investigate the actions of a group of officers based in the city’s Southern Station, a downtown precinct that includes pockets of residential hotels.
It was in two of these hotels, notorious for drug use and sales, where officers were videotaped using questionable methods. In one case involving a heroin arrest in January, an officer covers the lens of a surveillance camera while three other officers approach a room and order the resident to open the door before pushing their way in, allegedly without a warrant, according to the public defender’s office. A police report stated that the woman had voluntarily let the officers into her home.
All told, seven plainclothes officers and their supervisor are under suspicion, and Chief Jeff Godown said Wednesday that he would “audit every operation in the city” and had ordered the city’s undercover officers to be retrained on issues of search and seizure. “It doesn’t make a difference to me if there’s a hundred or a thousand, they’re all going to get retrained,” he said.
Mr. Adachi, the public defender, has been outspoken in his criticism of the police and requested a wide review — dating back as far as seven years — of cases involving the officers, as well as any drug arrests made at the two hotels.
Mr. Adachi said thousands of cases could possibly be in jeopardy. “These officers made two, three arrests a day,” he said. Of the 57 cases dropped, most involved narcotics, according to the district attorney’s office. In one case, a 52-year-old man charged with multiple counts involving heroin and cocaine faced a possible sentence of 35 years.
The scandal comes just a year after hundreds of drug cases were dismissed by prosecutors when it was discovered that a technician in the police crime laboratory was stealing cocaine.
Mr. Gascón left the Police Department in January to take over the district attorney’s office, but acknowledged Wednesday that much of the suspected misbehavior had occurred on his watch. He said that while “the majority of the people in the San Francisco Police Department are moral, ethical people,” everyone — including the police — had flaws. “The reality,” he said, “is that the Police Department recruits from the human race.”