By Vivian Ho 4/10/15
The FBI will conduct an independent criminal investigation into allegations that San Francisco sheriff’s deputies who run the city’s jails forced inmates to fight for their entertainment, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said Friday.
At a news conference addressing several recent incidents of purported misconduct in his department, Mirkarimi sought to show he has a strong handle on the agency ahead of this year’s re-election bid. He said the FBI had agreed to look into the jail fights following his personal request to theDepartment of Justice.
Mirkarimi also announced he was seeking to fire a deputy in connection with the recent escape of an accused drug trafficker who was mistakenly allowed to take out the jail trash — and who remains on the lam.
“Call it a preemptive strike, call it preventative medicine,” Mirkarimi said of the FBI probe, “but understand that my request to the Department of Justice and the FBI underscores my administration’s determination to make sure that no persons or clique deter or derail our pursuit and implementation of robust and durable reforms, especially as it concerns our efforts to enhance transparency and accountability.”
Flanked by his command staff, Mirkarimi — whose leadership has been questioned by his opponent in this year’s campaign and others — took the unusual step of appearing before the media in his dress uniform. He called the news conference just days after the union representing deputies endorsed his opponent, former Chief Deputy Sheriff Vicki Hennessy.
4 deputies are accused
In March, several inmates came forward to say that four deputies arranged and gambled on fights between at least two inmates at County Jail No. 4, located at the Hall of Justice.
The deputies — Scott Neu, Clifford Chiba, Eugene Jones and Evan Staehely — were placed on paid administrative leave as several city agencies launched investigations, including the San Francisco Police Department and a special task force formed by the district attorney.
Mirkarimi said Friday that the allegations “appear isolated” to the four deputies and to that particular jail. But he said he did not want to leave “anything to chance” in calling for an independent federal investigation.
The Sheriff’s Department’s internal investigation is likely to be completed in the next two weeks, Mirkarimi said. He expects it will result in not only “possible personnel actions, but also procedural and policy modifications.” Mirkarimi could seek to punish, or fire, one or more of the deputies.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who made the fight allegations public, commended the sheriff for reaching out to the FBI, and said he hopes the investigation will determine whether the issue goes deeper than the four deputies.
No ‘misplaced loyalty’
“Eliminating this sort of brutal and sadistic conduct starts by leading an investigation that isn’t tainted by conflict of interest or misplaced loyalty,” Adachi said. “I look forward to a thorough and fair investigation that includes determining whether additional deputies were aware of the abuse and complicit in their silence. To ensure this never happens again, there must be accountability — not only for the perpetrators, but for those who fail to speak up.”
The inmates said the deputies, particularly Neu, told them to lie and say they fell off their bunks if they needed medical treatment. One inmate — Ricardo Palikiko Garcia, whose drug and gun possession case has since been dropped by the district attorney’s office — said he suffered severe bruises and possible fractured ribs from the fight.
Another inmate, Stanley Harris, said Neu took pleasure in humiliating him by making him “train” for the fights, forcing him to do 200 push-ups in an hour, even though he is overweight.
“We welcome an independent inquiry into these claims,” said Harry Stern, Neu’s attorney. “I am confident that such an investigation will reveal that the complaints made by a group of inmates are wildly exaggerated.”
Jail escape probe
The sheriff also addressed the investigation into last month’s escape of inmate Alexander Santiago-Gonzalez, 26.
The federally indicted narcotics trafficker, who was facing the prospect of lengthy prison time, fled from custody March 23 after deputies mistakenly allowed him to take out the jail trash, a privilege given only to trusted, low-risk offenders.
“It appears that previously instituted security protocols were ignored and directly contributed to the escape,” Mirkarimi said. “Based upon the evidence gathered in the administrative investigation, I have initiated termination proceedings for the deputy involved in the escape.”
Santiago-Gonzalez, who was last seen in the South of Market neighborhood wearing only underwear, remains at large. A $5 million warrant has been issued for his arrest, Mirkarimi said, and the department is “moving to implement more restrictive guidelines related to inmate workers.”
In a third case, Mirkarimi said the district attorney’s office had declined to file criminal charges against an off-duty deputy —Scott Osha, treasurer for the deputy sheriffs’ association — who allegedly pulled a gun on a parking meter worker during a dispute near the Hall of Justice in December. The department’s internal investigation is ongoing.
‘Not the insider fluff’
Mirkarimi said he called the news conference because “when government and law enforcement falters, the public deserves straight answers, not the insider fluff or machine spin that seems to placate change.”
He said he did not think the recent misconduct allegations would impact his re-election campaign. Nor, he said, was he concerned that he did not receive an endorsement from the deputy sheriffs’ union.