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Federal ‘Loin: Why are the U.S. Attorney and DEA taking an interest in everyday Tenderloin crime? 

Wednesday, Mar 4 2015
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Ivan Speed is not a model citizen. Since growing up in the Alemany housing projects, Speed has spent his adulthood running the streets in San Francisco, racking up the kind of record -- assault, theft, drugs, guns -- that would earn even a fallen choir boy the title of "career criminal."

Not that anyone in the Marina has anything to fear from the likes of Speed. His crime spree as of late has been contained to the Tenderloin, where his alleged misdeeds -- stealing $25, swiping a phone, selling $50 worth of crack cocaine -- are seemingly trivial, especially considering these daily occurrences often take place in full view of rollerbag-dragging tourists who wandered a block too far from their Union Square hotel.

But Speed's multiple stints in custody in between filling the police blotter are not entirely harmless. Speed and many others like him stuck in the criminal justice system's revolving door are why are San Francisco has the highest recidivism rate in the state -- 77.9 percent, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. They also create a constant headache for frustrated police, who are tired of arresting the same people for the same crimes in the same place. Cops blame an accommodating district attorney and lenient judges for sticking them with the regular cast of recalcitrant reoffenders. Multiple offenses might lead to nothing more than probation, which means a swift return to the streets.  

It appears that police have found an innovative solution to this revolving door. Thanks to the federal Justice Department, which in between dealing with terrorism and immigration has taken an interest in policing the Tenderloin, "business as usual" on Turk Street can now lead to a federal prison term.

This month, Speed is scheduled to stand trial for allegedly possessing a gun -- a no-no for a felon on probation. The gun was allegedly used in a May 2012 robbery, where four men allegedly robbed a victim of a phone and $25 in front of a Tenderloin liquor store. As of now, there might not be a victim in this crime: The robbery victim gave police a fake name and a fake address before disappearing completely, according to court filings, and no witnesses are scheduled to testify in court.

If convicted, Speed could serve more than 200 months in prison, court filings say.

Mellina Williams' situation is similar. In 2013, San Francisco cops nabbed the now 32-year-old black woman for selling 1.4 grams of crack to an undercover cop -- a kind of "buy-bust" that clogged court dockets with dope fiends and stuff narcs' pockets with overtime pay during the crack era's heyday. This anachronistic practice is dying out. Courts don't want to deal with hordes of nonviolent drug offenders any more than overcrowded prisons want to house them.

But for her cheap rock, Williams did over a year in federal lockup. Williams and Speed were both arrested in "Operation Safe Schools," a 2013 caper in which S.F. cops working with Drug Enforcement Administration agents brought in 10 people for selling crack on the streets of the Tenderloin. In federal court, treasured San Francisco innovations like drug court, pretrial diversion, and other alternatives to incarceration do not apply, and judges working with mandatory minimums are not compelled to treat drug sales, no matter how petty, with probation.

The purpose of "Safe Schools," according to the feds, is to crack down on drug dealing near schools. And as happens in the central part of a densely populated city, all of the Tenderloin's reliable drug corners -- Turk and Taylor, Golden Gate and Hyde, to name a few -- are within 1,000 feet of a school. That triggers tougher penalties and justifies the federal government's interest in dime and nickel rocks of crack.

Eight of the 10 suspects arrested in the first Safe Schools sweep were black women, an inexplicable discrepancy unlike any other I've seen. Most were in their late 20s or early 30s, and most were mothers themselves, according to court documents. Nearly all had a string of prior convictions for the same offenses: possession of drugs, possession of drugs with the intent to sell, sale of drugs to an undercover officer. Instead of probation, all of them did at least a year in federal lockup.

If the first Safe Schools failed to impress, check out the sequel. In February, federal prosecutors announced another Safe Schools haul. This one -- 19 people -- is even bigger, but it's more of the same: repeat offenders, black men and women, the denizens of the Tenderloin at the mercy of a federal government that, unlike San Francisco, is not giving up on the drug war.

SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, the former narc who received praise from liberal and libertarian media in December for supposedly "disbanding" the city's narcotics unit, is a huge fan. In a press release announcing Safe Schools II, Suhr praised the DEA and the U.S. Attorney and offered harsh words for the drug dealers "preying on young children."

Which they aren't. Speed is accused of holding a gun during a liquor store holdup. Williams sold a rock to an undercover cop. These crimes do not involve kids. Even if Safe Schools is 100 percent successful of ridding the TL of dope dealers, school kids will still have to navigate a maze of chronic inebriates and mentally ill people while traversing the Tenderloin.

"Safe Schools" seems to serve one main purpose: It gives those cops tired of seeing the same faces a workaround to avoid local leniency and give dope fiends real punishment, with rules that favor the cops instead of the robbers.


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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