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Cover of Darkness: S.F. Police Turned a Blind Eye to Some of the City's Most Dangerous Criminals — Who Were Also Some of Their Most Trusted Sources 

Wednesday, May 8 2013
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Whatever intelligence SFPD gained from Sandoval and Guerra wasn't worth the risk, she argues. "The ultimate goal is not convictions; the ultimate goal is public safety and the reduction of crime," says Natapoff. "We have to question whether permitting Sandoval and Guerra to stay at large promoted public safety."

The three agencies that held the umbrella over Guerra and Sandoval — the Gang Task Force, the Narcotics Bureau, and the DA's office — illustrate the "Faustian bargain" that law enforcement strikes with confidential informants, says Natapoff. While police and prosecutors operate under the theory that flipping the little fish will lead them to the big fish, Sandoval and Guerra both held rank in their respective gangs, and Sandoval was involved in high-level drug trafficking. Allowing both men to remain free despite their repeated violations of SFPD informant guidelines and, more importantly, their threat to public safety, corrupts the function of the justice system, says Natapoff.

"It sends a terrible message to criminals, which is: You can continue to do your criminal work as long as you work with the government, as long as you're sufficiently useful," she says. Crucially, because of state laws that allow law enforcement to keep confidential the activity of informants, legislatures have effectively passed the buck on externally regulating the use of CIs. "Because we don't regulate this sort of relationship externally, we rely on police departments and prosecutor's offices to police themselves."

And experts say that the insulated, self-reinforcing culture of the specialized units that were using Guerra and Sandoval as informants is responsible in part for allowing these relationships to come into being and continue.

"It's a dreadful culture, they live by lies and deceit while living undercover," Keane says of high-risk, independent units like SFPD's Gang Task Force and Narcotics Division. Units with no significant oversight like the Gang Task Force are even more dangerous, because the lack of a formal recruiting structure reinforces the operating logic, modus operandi, and dysfunction of that unit. Drago says that officers given a significant deal of freedom, without the constant supervision that patrol officers receive from their sergeants, can get drawn in too deeply to the criminal world they are charged with disrupting. Such units, he says, "have got to be a tightly run ship," in terms of how money, informants, and interactions with the criminal element are handled. "The average guy who becomes a cop doesn't come from or step into that part of the world anywhere as much as these guys," Drago says. "They're in it every day."

Insofar as remedies, both local and state legislatures can intervene. After a young woman arrested for marijuana possession in Florida was coerced into participating in a sting operation that lead to her death in 2008, the state Legislature passed laws limiting the use of confidential informants and structuring guidelines for law enforcement uses of CIs. "Because it's hard to find out who's an informant, there has to be a mandate from the legislature that all informants are documented," says Drago.

SFPD's structure also means that the San Francisco Police Commission, which Keane once served on, can conduct its own probe into confidential informants. "The San Francisco Police Commission should investigate," says Keane. The commission has the power to review confidential documentation and institute disciplinary procedures against officers.

This sort of behavior, Keane says, is gotten away with because victims like Liri Lesku are not high-profile, middle-class citizens. "It's done to people who no one cares about," he says. "That makes all the difference."

This story was produced with the support of the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute, with support from The Puffin Foundation.

Reporter Julie Reynolds contributed to this story.

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Ali Winston

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