Skip to main content
News

SF cop ran nonprofit taking kids to Africa. Then investigators started asking questions

Questions have been raised about why a full time sworn SFPD officer was running his own nonprofit instead of doing regular police work.

An image of a plane, Africa and San Francisco.
The police founded nonprofit Operation Genesis was just the subject of an investigation into a number of alleged issues. | Source: Illustration by Jesse Rogala/The Standard

In 2019, Jason Johnson stood in the whitewashed courtyard of a castle that served as a slave trade depot on Ghana’s coast, surrounded by a group of teens from San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. Since at least 2016, Johnson's nonprofit has organized trips to Ghana to help underprivileged kids experience the world beyond San Francisco.

For almost a decade, according to tax filings, Johnson has spent 40 hours a week on Operation Genesis’ programming, which includes bringing teens from feuding neighborhoods together to reduce violence. The vast majority of Operation Genesis’s funding comes from the coffers of the City of San Francisco, specifically from the Mayor’s Office and the Human Rights Commission. He was not paid directly by the nonprofit. 

None of this would be unusual if it were not for the fact that Johnson worked a full-time schedule for the nonprofit while also working full-time as a San Francisco police officer.

Reconciling his dual full-time roles was never a priority for the SFPD. For years, the department has seen no conflict between Johnson’s two worlds, as it paid him a city salary to run Operation Genesis and plan trips to Ghana.

A police officer.
San Francisco Police Department Officer Jason Johnson speaks about his experience with Operation Genesis, which sends local youth to Ghana to experience the world beyond San Francisco, in a video produced by SFGovTV. | Source: Courtesy SFGovTV

A previously unreported investigation by the SFPD has now raised questions of impropriety over the police department paying an officer to run a private entity that receives hundreds of thousands of dollars of city funding with little to no formal oversight. 

“The fact that the city is funding this particular organization that is run by a city employee on city time is rife with potential conflicts,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said about Johnson doing double duty. “Even people with the best intentions can make mistakes and misuse city funds.” 

The concerns around Operation Genesis come months after an SFPD-linked organization, SF SAFE, imploded due to allegations it improperly billed the department for luxury gift boxes, valet parking and a Lake Tahoe trip. 

The department’s investigation into Operation Genesis recently concluded. Johnson is no longer a board member of the organization, according to its website. It is unclear whether his involvement with Operation Genesis will continue. Johnson did not return several calls seeking comment.

On Oct. 15, he was reassigned from SFPD's Field Operations Bureau to Investigations.

The department alleged he had worked on outside activities while on duty, ignored reports of internal misconduct, failed to report a relationship that created a conflict of interest and ignored a requirement to spell out the relationship between his police and nonprofit work in a formal document. 

The only allegations the investigation could prove was that the department had no formal agreement with the organization, although the two entities have worked closely for a decade.

“The SFPD should have a [memorandum of understanding] in place with any program that SFPD assigns officers to work with while on duty,” the department found. “These MOUs should clearly define the officer's roles and responsibilities.”

A police officer at a press event.
SFPD Lt. Troy Dangerfield, center, takes questions from reporters about alleged police misconduct in San Francisco on March 2, 2011. | Source: Courtesy Luke Thomas/Fog City Journal

When the department works with law enforcement or other agencies or organizations, it is typical for them to have such an agreement laying out the responsibilities and chain of command for SFPD officers who have been given an assignment or a detail.

A department spokesperson said it is currently drafting an MOU between the nonprofit and SFPD. Operation Genesis board members Preston Raisin and Kabir Seth did not respond to requests for comment, nor did executive director Tamara Walker. Board member Stuart Hanlon declined to comment. 

According to standing department rules, police officers are not allowed to work at a second job while on duty, nor are they allowed to use department resources on outside activities. The department says the work it paid Johson to do was above board because he was not paid by his charity. 

"There is no evidence to suggest Officer Johnson was compensated by Operation Genesis. His work with Operation Genesis is in line with our Collaborative Reform Initiative and our community policing strategic plan,” said department spokesperson Evan Sernoffsky, who added that the SFPD's relationship with the nonprofit is part of its effort to build bridges with the community. 

Police Commissioner Kevin Benedicto said, in general, officers should not be spending city time working for a private nonprofit while they are on duty, especially when there is no formal agreement between the city and that entity. 

Operation Genesis’s tax filings from 2017 to 2021 reported that Johnson spent 40 hours a week working for the entity while his former boss in the department, Lt. Troy Dangerfield, spent two hours a week working on nonprofit business.

Without clear lines defining the roles of such nonprofits, Benedicto added, “you risk actual corruption or the appearance of it.”

A man at a meeting
San Francisco Police Commissioner Kevin Benedicto listens during a commission hearing on July 19, 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Several former officers told The Standard that the relationship between Operation Genesis and the department was unprecedented. 

“We should have created some space between him working for the organization and leading it," retired Deputy Chief Mikail Ali said. 

While officers have been assigned to work alongside police-affiliated nonprofits such as the Police Athletic League, the arrangement with Operation Genesis is abnormal, said retired Officer Harry Soulette. 

“It’s kind of strange they would let you run the nonprofit and get paid by the department,” he said. “I’ve never heard of that.” 

The department did not respond to requests for comment on the claims made by both former officers or the conflict-of-interest issues raised by Peskin and Benedicto. 

Johnson founded the nonprofit in 2013 and had been its president ever since. Founding directors also include Dangerfield and Tiffany Sutton, who was a civilian employee of the police department. Sutton declined to comment, and Dangerfield did not respond to a request for comment.  

Johnson told the Police Commission that he conceived of the organization while working with the Boys and Girls Club, where he mentored kids. After one 14-year-old boy he had known was convicted of murder, he said he sought a way to turn children away from violence.

“I wanted to establish a sense of culture,” he told the police commission in 2021. Taking African American kids to Ghana, he said, would help them develop a larger sense of themselves and their culture. After the pandemic prevented the organization from taking trips for several years, he refocused the nonprofit on several programs meant to reduce violence in the Bayview and the city’s southeast police district. 

A mural
A mural along the Third Street Corridor business district represents the diversity of San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

Operation Genesis has taken roughly 80 kids to Africa. Meanwhile, its funding has increased annually, mostly through city grants. As of 2023, the city has given Operation Genesis $575,000 in grants.

Neffertice Williams, who resigned from the board in March, said she got involved with the organization after seeing a news story about its work and continued that work for years.

Williams said she was never aware of any misconduct while she worked with Operation Genesis, which always had a close relationship with the department. 

“I don’t feel like the department ever expressed it was an issue,” she said of Johnson working full-time for the nonprofit and as a police officer. “It seemed to be fully supported by the department.”

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at jonah@sfstandard.com