A San Francisco police officer accused of targeting Latinos in the Tenderloin could lose his job if he’s found to have violated a state law that allows defendants to challenge their prosecution if it was based on underlying racial bias.
Should an analysis of his policing prove a pattern of selective enforcement, Sgt. Daniel Solorzano could face discipline up to and including firing, according to his attorney and lawyers representing some of the people he arrested.
Attorneys for a handful of the Latino drug-dealing defendants arrested by Solorzano say he violated the 2020 Racial Justice Act, which prohibits the state from criminally convicting a person based on race or ethnicity.
While attorneys have yet to ask a judge to rule on whether the officer’s actions were racially biased, they are looking for records to further investigate a pattern they say they have already noticed.
Their research found that Solorzano arrested 53 people for drug offenses in the Tenderloin from Jan. 1, 2020, to Jan. 15, 2022. All those arrested were Latinos.
Some 43 other suspects detained or mentioned in those same operations, meanwhile, were not arrested, the research found. Only two of the detainees who walked were Latino.
If San Francisco Superior Court Judge Christine Van Aken agrees that Solorzano violated the Racial Justice Act, an unknown number of cases could be dismissed or reduced, according to Deputy Public Defender Jessie Hsieh, who represents several of the defendants.
Such a ruling would further dent the reputation of a police department that, despite years of reform efforts, continues to report racially disparate arrest patterns. Data shared earlier this year found that SFPD continued a longstanding pattern of stopping, searching and using force on Black people far more than people of any other race last year.
Solarzano himself has been accused of selective enforcement against Black people before. In early 2020, the city settled a lawsuit alleging that SFPD’s drug stings targeted African Americans. The suit, which sought recompense for 37 Black suspects, named Solorzano with 13 other officers.
Reached by phone Friday, Solorzano said he could not speak about the hearing before first checking in with his superiors. The police department, meanwhile, did not respond to a request for comment.
The selective enforcement issue was brought up Friday in San Francisco Superior Court, where lawyers for SFPD, Solarzano and the District Attorney’s Office argued over how and if the defense can access police reports of all drug arrests made for the past two years in the Tenderloin.
Now the attorneys defending a handful of those arrestees want to find out how common such racial policing is. So, Hsieh, who represents several of the defendants, is asking for records of arrests made by Solorzano and other officers.
If that information is handed over to the defense and they find a pattern of Solarzano exclusively targeting Latinos, they could file motions for dismissal against those suspects.
Solarzano’s attorney appeared in the Friday hearing to argue that he should be allowed to participate in the proceedings because they could impact her client’s reputation professionally and personally.
SFPD’s internal policy bars officers from racially biased policing. If the court finds him in violation of the Racial Justice Act, that could open him up to discipline under the department’s own rules. Any such ruling, acknowledged Judge Van Aken in court Friday, could damage his professional reputation.
Meanwhile, his attorney Nicole Pifari said, the Public Defender’s Office is accusing a Latino officer of racist enforcement against defendants who share his racial identity.
“The Public Defender’s Office is targeting Sgt. Solorzano, a Latino man of Mexican and Nicaraguan descent, because he is a champion in the battle against the epidemic of Fentanyl deaths in San Francisco,” said Pifari in a statement.
Pifari described the moves being made by defense counsel as harassment meant to scare police from doing their job and taking drugs off the streets, which she said her client has been busy doing. So far this year Solorzano has seized 18 pounds of drugs.
Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org