Since last month, Hollywood TV company KKI Productions has been quietly filming San Francisco cops at work for a reality TV show. KKI has provided the SFPD with a 2007 Honda Accord loaded with secret video cameras, audio recording equipment, remotely operated door locks, and an ignition kill switch. Teams of undercover officers drive the Honda to areas of the city with high rates of auto theft, where they park it and leave it unattended with the driver's side door open and the engine running, sometimes blocking the flow of traffic.
Unable to resist such a golden opportunity, would-be car thieves hop in and drive away. They don't get far: Several cops, who've been watching the whole time, swoop in and arrest them. The experience is then later broadcast for the public's enjoyment on truTV's Bait Car. (Filming in San Francisco was scheduled to wrap up before Labor Day, but there's no word yet on when the S.F. segments will air.)
Cops in numerous cities including Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and New Orleans have been on Bait Car. That's partly why Police Chief George Gascón signed off on allowing his officers to participate, according to spokeswoman Lt. Lyn Tomioka. He and the show's producers "had a long talk about it," she said, noting that Bait Car came "highly recommended" from law enforcement in other cities.
However, attorneys in the San Francisco Public Defender's Office have no praise for Bait Car. They are not thrilled about handling cases — of which there are 11 so far — that have been filmed for television. "What this boils down to is crime creation," deputy public defender Fatima Ortiz says.
Her client, an Ohio man visiting the city for the Outside Lands festival, was arrested after he watched two women (both undercover cops) loudly announce they were abandoning the car to exact revenge on its purported owner. They left the car running at a Muni bus stop on Haight Street; he was arrested while on his way to drop off the car at nearby Park police station, she says. "It's crime created for the purposes of entertainment," she adds. "I don't know how any district attorney could in good conscience put this before a jury."
Social justice aside, police reports indicate that the Bait Car operations involve as many as 10 or 12 officers. That's significant time and money expended on small-time crime: the cases are charged as misdemeanors (unlawful driving or taking of a vehicle), not felonies, and the one case to go before a judge has been dismissed, according to Kwixuan Maloof, the deputy public defender who manages the misdemeanor division. "A $500 million budget deficit, and this is what they're doing?" he asks. "It's ridiculous."