A controversial public debate has been raging since last year when the San Francisco Police Department pulled out of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), pitting those who say the department’s withdrawal puts the city at risk against those who say local officers shouldn’t be embedded with federal agents until civil rights concerns are addressed.
Although San Francisco is the largest Bay Area city without a presence on the JTTF, an NBC Bay Area investigation discovered very few other local agencies in the region choose to lend their officers to the federal task force. Law enforcement sources say that leaves the region vulnerable to a terrorist attack. Most of those agencies that aren’t on the JTTF told NBC Bay Area they simply don’t have the resources or personnel to dedicate a full-time officer. But for some larger agencies, such as the San Francisco Police Department, politics also factor into the decision. In San Francisco, policy no longer allows its police officers to be sworn federal officers on the JTTF.
The JTTF operating out of the FBI San Francisco field office is responsible for covering 15 Northern California counties. But NBC Bay Area found just six local agencies overall, representing only two of those counties, have a formal presence on the task force. Formal members of the JTTF are sworn in as federal agents, and as such, gain security clearances that allow them access to intelligence they otherwise are not allowed to see.
The FBI says that by having so few local agencies with “butts in the seats” at JTTF headquarters, it puts this area at a disadvantage when conducting terror investigations within those communities because they lean on the local knowledge and connections of those officers.
“The threat has evolved, and it is much more difficult to detect,” said Craig Fair, deputy special agent in charge for the San Francisco field office. “Individuals are radicalizing themselves, acting alone, and that makes them much more difficult to detect. That is why we rely on our relationships with communities as well as local law enforcement.”
But prominent civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) say there are significant civil rights concerns when local officers are deputized as federal agents.
“The FBI has a decades-long practice of targeting minority and politically unpopular communities,” said Zahra Billoo, executive director of CAIR San Francisco Bay Area. “Through that practice, they have eroded nearly all civil rights protections when it comes to interviewing, visiting, and investigating what they would call people of interest. When local police departments partner with the FBI, what we’ve been worried about is they are performing at the lower civil rights standards that the FBI uses, rather than the much stronger protections that we have in California.”
Lack of Participation
There are more than 100 local law enforcement agencies within the 15 counties covered by the FBI’s San Francisco field office, but multiple federal and local law enforcement sources told NBC Bay Area only six of those agencies have a permanent officer assigned to the JTTF. Those agencies include the Oakland Police Department, San Jose Police Department, Fremont Police Department, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office and BART police.
Although the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office does not currently have a member on the task force, a spokesperson told NBC Bay Area that the department expects to formally join the JTTF soon.
While the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), which facilitates information sharing among federal and local law enforcement agencies, has more participation from local law enforcement agencies, those officers don’t participate in active terror investigations. That’s the responsibility of the JTTF, and the FBI says having local partners on the task force is invaluable.
“The Bay Area has iconic targets,” Fair said. “Everybody knows that, whether it’s the Golden Gate Bridge, Transamerica building, or other parts of the Bay Area. [Those locations] have actually been part of propaganda material that has been pushed out through ISIS social media.”
Fair said local officers bring unique skills to the table and also bring a connection to the command staff and individual officers in their departments. Local terror investigations, he said, can be hampered without their support.
“The implication is that they don’t have the day-to-day real time access to certain information,” Fair said. “There could be a delay while we pick up the phone and find the right person to talk to. I don’t want to say that there is a communication breakdown, but there certainly would be a delay in either receiving information or reporting information that’s germane to that particular department.”
Civil Rights Concerns
But some critics of the JTTF, like CAIR’s Billoo, believe the FBI is exaggerating the public safety implications.
“If the FBI knows of a credible terror threat, and because the department is not participating in the Joint Terrorism Task Force won’t still pick up the phone and have a conversation with that police department, that sounds like political gaming to me,” Billoo said.
Billoo says the fact that local officers are deputized as federal agents is a major concern because the federal government has simply lost the trust of many minority communities in the Bay Area. She says the FBI puts the Muslim community under a microscope without giving the same level of scrutiny to possible white supremacist terrorists.
“I worry that what we have right now is a president who is openly anti-Muslim and has put forward policies that target members of my community as well as other communities,” Billoo said.
While Fair vehemently denies the FBI targets people for First Amendment protected activity, he acknowledges his office has some work to do in gaining the trust of some Bay Area communities.
“I understand that, and that is what we try to overcome,” Fair said. “I come into work [every day], and my job is to uphold the Constitution and protect the American people. And there is no community that is excluded from that mission.”
Fair insists that the FBI and any JTTF activity targets only individuals, not communities. And he says the Federal agents only investigate individuals or groups that could pose a potential threat.
Billoo and other critics say past history of FBI behavior belies that, and they say the level of distrust in many minority communities, especially Muslim communities, towards the FBI and the U.S. Government remains high.
NBC Bay Area sent a survey to more than 90 Northern California law enforcement agencies to gain a perspective on their decisions to participate or not participate on the JTTF.
NBC Bay Area received information on 35 of those agencies, and the vast majority of agencies without an officer on the task force say it simply comes down to a lack of resources. For small agencies, sparing even one full-time officer can be a challenge. However, many did say they attend regular briefings with the FBI to get updates on potential threats.
The FBI says it’s not concerned if smaller agencies don’t participate but would like larger agencies, such as the San Francisco Police Department, to consider joining. None of the larger Bay Area law enforcement agencies that do not have an officer on the task force agreed to an interview for this story.
According to federal and local law enforcement sources, federal officials had no idea a gunman opened fire on his colleagues at a San Francisco UPS facility until they saw it on television. Although Fair did not want to comment on that specific incident, he said time is crucial in any potential terror attack.
“It’s important for us to get the identity of that individual so that we can run the name through our databases and so that we can resolve that there’s not another threat out there as we’ve seen in France, as we’ve seen in other areas around the [European Union] where there’s multiple actors,” Fair said.
When the Memorandum of Understanding between the JTTF and San Francisco Police Department expired last year, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted to pull the department out of the task force. San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim helped spearhead the initiative, saying she was concerned the JTTF was targeting Muslim communities.
“What we ask is that we don’t use local law enforcement officers to survey communities without probable cause,” Kim said. “I think that is the main issue.”
Meanwhile, the San Francisco Police Officers Association has been fighting a well-publicized battle with City Hall over that decision.
“It is astounding that in San Francisco, being one of the top five targets in the United States, that our investigators are prohibited from cooperating or participating in investigations that could cause injuries or fatalities to citizens, residents, and visitors to this city,” said Martin Halloran, President of the San Francisco Police Officers Association.
The San Francisco Police Department declined an interview request for this story, but said in a statement the department will continue to work in collaboration with local, state and federal law enforcement partners to keep the city safe irrespective of their status on the JTTF.