By Alex Emslie and Minna Kim
Two civil rights groups filed a complaint Wednesday alleging a San Francisco police inspector violated department rules and city law while working with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
The complaint (read below), filed with the San Francisco Office of Citizen Complaints, comes in the context of a years-long battle by civil rights groups representing Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian communities to enshrine San Francisco Police Department policy into law when it came to city cops working with the FBI.
The groups won that battle in 2012 with the passage of the Safe San Francisco Civil Rights Ordinance. The ordinance allows SFPD officers to participate in FBI counterterrorism investigations “only in a manner that is fully consistent with the laws of the State of California, including but not limited to the inalienable right to privacy guaranteed by Article 1, Section 1 of the California Constitution, as well as the laws and policies of the City and County of San Francisco and, as applicable to the Police Department, that Department’s policies, procedures, and orders.”
In the incident detailed in the complaint, the San Francisco branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Asian Law Caucus allege that an SFPD inspector not only violated the law, but that the department failed to report it.
The complaint alleges that SFPD Sgt. Inspector Gavin McEachern violated the ordinance and a handful of department policies when he and an unidentified FBI agent approached software engineer Sarmad Gilani in June 2014, at Google offices in San Francisco.
“My client and I had filed a Freedom of Information Act request regarding some travel issues he was having,” said Brice Hamack, an attorney and CAIR’s Northern California civil rights coordinator.
Hamack said that a few weeks later, Gilani got an unexpected visit at work.
“They asked him questions almost solely related to his First Amendment protected activity,” Hamack said, “such as his recent travel, his political opinions on recent international events, and based on some writings he saw in one of the officers’ notebooks, they were also interested in his blogging and his political opinions online as well. None of the questions asked had anything to do with any actual criminal investigation whatsoever.”
The San Francisco Police Department declined to answer questions related to the complaint, and a spokesman directed inquiries to the FBI. Federal agents did not respond to requests for comment.
But SFPD Lt. Daryl Fong, who oversees the department’s participation in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, addressed San Francisco’s Police Commission last month to give an annual report.
“SFPD members assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force do not engage in interviews regarding solely constitutionally protected activities,” Fong said on Feb. 4, “which would be a violation of department general orders.”
Hamack said the filing will be the first real test of the city’s 3-year-old policy, which also mandates the annual reporting and a paper trail requesting permission for the kind of investigation Sgt. McEachern is alleged to have joined.
“When the ordinance was passed and enacted, one of the mechanisms to keep the department in check was these annual reports where the department was supposed to be transparent about what they were doing,” Hamack said. “When they released their report, there was no mention of this incident whatsoever.”