San Fran­cisco’s exit from FBI task force car­ries risks

Law en­force­ment con­cerns over pro­tect­ing im­mi­grants clashed with the agency’s aim of foil­ing at­tacks

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY ELLEN NAKASHIMA ellen.nakashima@wash­post.com

Un­der pres­sure from civil lib­er­ties ad­vo­cates and the Mus­lim com­mu­nity, the San Fran­cisco Po­lice Depart­ment (SFPD) last month pulled out of the FBI’s Joint Ter­ror­ism Task Force (JTTF) amid con­tro­versy over the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s travel ban and con­cerns that par­tic­i­pa­tion in the task force might vi­o­late lo­cal laws pro­tect­ing im­mi­grants and re­li­gious mi­nori­ties.

But the move, cur­rent and for­mer law en­force­ment of­fi­cials said, could weaken ef­forts to de­tect and stop ter­ror­ist plots in the Bay area. There are 104 such task forces through­out the coun­try — con­sist­ing of cells of an­a­lysts, SWAT ex­perts and other spe­cial­ists from lo­cal, state and fed­eral law en­force­ment agen­cies that col­lec­tively as­sess in­tel­li­gence and re­spond to ter­ror­ism threats.

“It’s cut­ting off your left hand to spite your right hand. It makes no sense at all,” said James McJunkin, a for­mer FBI of­fi­cial who once led the na­tion’s sec­ond-largest Joint Ter­ror­ism Task Force, in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal. “It thwarts the ef­forts of hun­dreds of men and women who go to work ev­ery day to fight ter­ror­ism.”

In New York City, for ex­am­ple, the JTTF was crit­i­cal last Septem­ber in cap­tur­ing in less than 40 hours the ac­cused Chelsea bomber, Ah­mad Rahimi, who is charged with set­ting off an ex­plo­sion that in­jured 31 peo­ple. And task force work led to the 2012 ar­rest of a Vir­ginia man charged with at­tempt­ing to blow him­self up in the U.S. Capi­tol.

Civil rights ad­vo­cates say that mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties such as San Fran­cisco should not be put in a po­si­tion of co­op­er­at­ing with fed­eral law en­force­ment agen­cies that con­duct in­ves­ti­ga­tions in a man­ner that con­flicts with lo­cal laws and that may share in­for­ma­tion that leads to non­crim­i­nal but un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants be­ing de­ported.

“This is a prob­lem not just for San Fran­cisco,” said John Crew, a lawyer for­merly with the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union who was asked by the SFPD and the FBI to ex­plore so­lu­tions to the is­sue. “It’s a prob­lem around the coun­try of lo­cal po­lice as­sign­ing of­fi­cers to the FBI un­der ar­range­ments that have not been scru­ti­nized in the past, where lo­cal civil rights and racial pro­fil­ing poli­cies are go­ing to be reeval­u­ated in the era of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

But cur­rent and for­mer of­fi­cials said that the ac­tivists’ con­cern is mis­placed.

“The real dan­ger here is you’ve got a sin­gu­lar po­lit­i­cal is­sue that is up­root­ing a well-founded proven ben­e­fit to a com­mu­nity,” McJunkin said. “The driv­ing pur­pose of the JTTF is to spot and as­sess ter­ror­ism threats. Not to go around and gob­ble up il­le­gal im­mi­grants. I’ve never seen an ex­am­ple of that.”

The SFPD said the sus­pen­sion of co­op­er­a­tion would have hap­pened re­gard­less of who won the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in Novem­ber, be­cause a 10-year agree­ment with the JTTF was ex­pir­ing this month and any re­newal re­quires po­lice com­mis­sion re­view.

“We want all per­sons to feel com­fort­able in con­tact­ing SFPD . . . to re­port crimes and emer­gen­cies with­out con­cern as to their im­mi­gra­tions sta­tus,” SFPD spokesman Michael An­dray­chak said. “The city has a his­tory and tra­di­tion of demon­stra­tions and other First Amend­ment ac­tiv­ity, and the SFPD works with the com­mu­nity to help fa­cil­i­tate First Amend­ment ac­tiv­ity.”

Of­fi­cials said they did not think the with­drawal would af­fect pub­lic safety. “We are con­fi­dent that [lo­cal, state and fed­eral law en­force­ment part­ners] would alert the SFPD to any known cred­i­ble threat against the city,” An­dray­chak said.

The FBI de­clined to com­ment on the is­sue. But law en­force­ment of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter said the task forces are not used for non­crim­i­nal im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment.

San Fran­cisco is the first po­lice depart­ment to take such an ac­tion this year, but other cities and towns may be fol­low­ing suit. Across the bay in the city of Oakland, the city’s pri­vacy ad­vi­sory com­mis­sion on Thurs­day rec­om­mended the City Coun­cil ap­prove an or­di­nance re­quir­ing the po­lice force to fol­low lo­cal rules rather than what the com­mis­sion thinks are less re­stric­tive strict FBI stan­dards in crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Faith-based groups and civil rights ad­vo­cates are also spear­head­ing ef­forts to win sim­i­lar mea­sures in In­di­ana, Mis­souri, Florida, Texas, Michi­gan, New Jersey, New York and Mary­land, or­ga­niz­ers said.

“We’re ask­ing them to make a com­mit­ment to have lo­cal po­lice de­part­ments com­mit to be­ing cities where they will re­ject any in­for­ma­tion gath­er­ing for un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, for po­lit­i­cal dis­senters and re­li­gious mi­nori­ties,” said Michael McBride, di­rec­tor of ur­ban strate­gies for PICO, a na­tional net­work of faith-based com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions.

In Pasadena, Calif., in Fe­bru­ary, the city man­ager sus­pended an agree­ment be­tween the po­lice depart­ment and the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity’s Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment (ICE) agency, which au­tho­rized joint in­ves­ti­ga­tions of hu­man traf­fick­ing, drug smug­gling and other non-im­mi­gra­tion re­lated crimes while the City Coun­cil con­sid­ers a res­o­lu­tion declar­ing Pasadena a sanc­tu­ary city. Such a move prob­a­bly would mean that city po­lice would be barred from ask­ing sus­pects about their im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus.

In San Fran­cisco, con­cerns had been build­ing for some time about the scope of the power the FBI has to in­ves­ti­gate peo­ple even when there is no rea­son­able sus­pi­cion that they have been in­volved in crimes, civil lib­er­ties ad­vo­cates said.

In 2015, for in­stance, a city po­lice of­fi­cer on the JTTF showed up unan­nounced at Google head­quar­ters in Sil­i­con Val­ley to in­ter­view an em­ployee, who was Mus­lim, about his trav­els and rel­a­tives in Pak­istan. The Of­fice of Ci­ti­zen Com­plaints found last Au­gust that the in­ci­dent was a re­sult of a “train­ing fail­ure” and that it vi­o­lated a po­lice depart­ment rule that re­quired that the of­fi­cer doc­u­ment in writ­ing a rea­son­able sus­pi­cion that the tar­get is in­volved in a crime be­fore ask­ing ques­tions about First Amend­ment-pro­tected ac­tiv­ity.

Ad­vo­cates also ex­pressed con­cerns that the JTTF might de­ter­mine that some­one it is in­ter­view­ing is an un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant and that the in­for­ma­tion may wind up in a data­base that ICE can use.

A fed­eral law en­force­ment of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss a sen­si­tive is­sue, de­fended the bureau. Task force of­fi­cers do not gen­er­ally seek to in­ter­view any­one with­out rea­son­able sus­pi­cion, he said. “We don’t have the re­sources or band­width to waste our time” go­ing after peo­ple with­out at least some sus­pi­cion that they may have knowl­edge of po­ten­tial ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity.

He also said that al­though a task force of­fi­cer may learn that some­one over­stayed their visa, if that per­son is not linked to ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity, the FBI is not likely to pur­sue a case. “We’re not go­ing to scoop a guy up just for an over­stay,” he said.

And an ICE of­fi­cial, who also spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity, said ICE agents on the task force give pri­or­ity to cases in­volv­ing sig­nif­i­cant crim­i­nal and ter­ror­ism ac­tiv­ity, not to visa over­stays.

There is prece­dent for San Fran­cisco’s move. In 2005, Port­land, Ore., pulled its po­lice depart­ment out of the lo­cal JTTF amid con­cerns that mass in­ter­views of Mus­lims be­ing con­ducted by the task force dur­ing the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion vi­o­lated state anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion laws.

In Los An­ge­les, which has the na­tion’s third-largest FBI field of­fice, the po­lice depart­ment is not likely to with­draw from the task force, said Deputy Chief Michael Down­ing, who runs the Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment’s coun­tert­er­ror­ism and spe­cial op­er­a­tions bureau.

If ma­jor city po­lice de­part­ments pull out of the JTTFs, Down­ing said, “it’s a po­ten­tial dis­as­ter.” Lo­cal po­lice have the best con­nec­tions to the com­mu­ni­ties they serve, he said, and “the FBI can’t do this by them­selves, and ma­jor city po­lice de­part­ments can’t do this by them­selves.”

The San Fran­cisco po­lice spokesman, An­dray­chak, said a de­ci­sion to re­join would be up to the city po­lice com­mis­sion.

Com­mis­sion mem­ber Bill Hing, a Univer­sity of San Fran­cisco law pro­fes­sor and ex­pert on im­mi­gra­tion law, said he is con­cerned that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion “would take full ad­van­tage of what­ever part­ner­ships they had” with cities to step up de­por­ta­tions.

He said, how­ever, that “pub­lic safety is our high­est pri­or­ity.” He ex­pressed faith that the po­lice depart­ment can en­sure pub­lic safety with­out vi­o­lat­ing in­di­vid­ual rights. “It takes good po­lice work,” he said. “I know it can some­times be a very fine line.”

MARK RALSTON/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

FBI Joint Ter­ror­ism Task Force mem­bers pro­vide se­cu­rity for the 2016 Los An­ge­les Pride pa­rade in the wake of a shoot­ing at a Florida night­club. There are 104 such task forces through­out the United States.

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