After a two-year separation, the FBI wants to get back together with San Francisco.
The bureau sent Mayor London Breed a letter on Jan. 29, touting the advantages of a currently suspended partnership between the FBI and the San Francisco Police Department —largely meant to quash terrorist threats in the region.
“The San Francisco Division of the FBI receives 1,000 allegations per year involving acts of terror,” wrote Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett in the letter. “Many of those allegations appear serious and cannot be ignored.”
The SFPD pulled out of the so-called Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in February 2017, facing pressure from civil-liberties advocates and members of the Muslim community who felt that the Feds and the SFPD would collaborate to a higher degree to target undocumented immigrants and Muslim residents under the Trump Administration.
In some cases, people with a history of mental illness and no connection to terrorist groups have purportedly been entrapped by the task force.
Breed, who became mayor after the partnership was canceled, has been mum on how she responded to the letter. Her office did not provide an answer as of press time.
As Acting Mayor, Breed considered reinitiating the relationship following a purported terrorist threat in December 2017.
Ultimately, however, the decision to reinstate the partnership rests with the Police Commission, which did not renew the 10-year agreement that expired in February 2017. If Breed has strong feelings on this matter, she would not ostensibly have a difficult making them known. Mayoral appointees hold a majority on the board and are not afraid of leveraging it. Moreover, she and Commission President Bob Hirsch go way back.
“I have no plans for the commission to address the JTTF issue,” Hirsch said in a Tuesday text message.
Yet, he added: “I can’t say whether the matter will eventually come back to us.”
The FBI letter, obtained by Mission Local, was also delivered to the SFPD, Police Commission, Board of Supervisors, the City Attorney and the Police Officers Association. The lattermost strongly opposed pulling out of the agreement, and ran ads criticizing the department over the move to withdraw.
In the letter, Bennett, the FBI agent, says he seeks to correct what he felt was “inaccurate information” reported by media regarding the task force. “I believe it is essential you have an accurate and complete understanding of how the FBI and the JTTF work to protect the citizens of the City and County of San Francisco,” Bennett wrote.
Bennett goes on to explain how the partnership functions: The SFPD shares information with the FBI and nominates a handful of officers to serve on the task force to serve as a “bridge” between the agencies.
Although Bennett does not explicitly request a renewal of the task force, he spends five pages attempting to sell its benefits and quell Constitutional concerns. “It is the day-to-day participation of local officers on the JTTF which offers the greatest public safety enhancement in the prevention of an act of terrorism,” he wrote.
Bennett also asserted that the bureau does not target certain individuals and communities before receiving a specific allegation. “This is never the case,” Bennett wrote.
But civil liberties advocates have repeatedly made allegations to the contrary.
“This is a priority for us because the FBI has a history of not just surveilling, but harassing the [Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian] community throughout the Bay Area,” said Jeffrey Wang, an civil rights attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Wang could not comment directly on the letter but he said that, generally, the task force is problematic because officers who have been deputized as FBI agents operate under more relaxed standards of reasonable suspicion and probable cause, allowing them to stop, question and surveil suspects more easily.
“The FBI retains control over these officers,” Wang said, explaining that local police departments, like the SFPD, have difficulty overseeing the officers’ activities and ensuring they’re abiding by local laws.
This was evident in 2014, when an SFPD inspector and an FBI agent — acting as part of the task force — questioned a Google employee about a Freedom of Information Act request he had made, as well as a trip he had taken to Pakistan. They did not have a warrant.
“That’s the concern,” Wang said.