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Drug Policy: SFPD's buy-bust operations a costly flop 

Wednesday, Apr 28 2010

Elaine Mason is no saint — the 52-year-old with no fixed address has been arrested 49 times in San Francisco — but the case that could land her in prison isn't exactly Scarface-worthy. In January, she was walking in the Mission District near 16th Street when a man approached her and asked for a solid (street slang for a $20 rock of crack cocaine).

Mason brought the man to two possible sellers before the pair found a 17-year-old girl who had drugs on hand — except she was a burn artist who sold them "bunk," fake crack. That didn't matter: The buyer was an undercover police officer conducting a "buy-bust" operation, and Mason, who had brokered the deal, was arrested and charged with a felony.

Buy-busts — in which teams of five to 11 undercover officers solicit drugs on the street — are a prized success story for the SFPD and the district attorney's office, according to DA spokesman Brian Buckelew. That's one way of looking at it. The other is that buy-busts are expensive wastes of time that accomplish little other than clogging up the courts with low-level addicts while providing gobs of overtime to narcotics cops, according to senior public defender Rebecca Young. She figures that at least 150 cases like Mason's go through the courts every month.

The buy-bust program rounds up some professional criminals who deal drugs for a living, but these comprise "maybe 1 percent" of the total, according to Young. Meanwhile, she says, this "dirty secret of the criminal justice system" accounts for 40 percent of the cases in San Francisco courts, and contributed to the fiasco at the SFPD crime lab, with overworked technicians forced to test dime bag after dime bag within 48 hours of seizure. These include cases like that of a 30-year-old homeless man who sold a $60 eighth of marijuana to a cop on Haight Street last May, who faces prison time for the pot and the small quantity of psilocybin mushrooms he had stashed in a pocket.

Buckelew admits that addicts are "swept up" in the buy-bust operations. But if there weren't undercover cops doing the stings, gangs from all over the Bay Area might flock to places like the Tenderloin, he says: "It's the strongest tool we have in stemming the drug trade in these communities."

But at what cost? SFPD overtime spending cleared $40 million in 2008 and $30 million in 2009, and much of that, Young figures, goes to cops running buy-bust stings, clocking overtime while on the streets and then earning four hours in court pay waiting to testify in a case over a $20 rock. The SFPD "has to prove this is worth $20 million a year," she says.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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