Nicol Palma was standing near the corner of Eddy and Polk streets in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin on July 20, 2022, when a gaunt white man walked up to her and said “rocka, rocka. I’ll give you $25,” adding, “if they’re fat.”
Palma walked a few paces to retrieve $25 worth of crack and a scale from someone tasked with their safekeeping, according to court testimony.
The associate wasn’t the only one waiting in the wings—a team of plainclothes officers lurked nearby. The cop tasked with keeping an eye on the would-be buyer waited for a sign that the deal was made so he could summon his colleagues to make the arrest.
When the undercover buy officer—the thin white man—made the sign, a team of officers closed in on Palma, who is Latina, and her holder.
Unlike most arrests, there was no body camera to capture the scene. The only witness to the actual drug deal, according to court testimony, was the undercover cop who set up the buy. His support team, who were dressed in plainclothes to blend in with the crowd, did not see the interaction, records said.
Observers say such buy-bust operations have become increasingly common in San Francisco over the past six months as city leaders push to clean up neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, where drug-dealing proliferated as pandemic lockdowns eased.
Now, the SFPD offensive driving the surge in arrests is raising questions about the efficacy of buy-bust policing in the face of a burgeoning fentanyl crisis.
And for reasons publicly unexplained, SFPD chose to put a group of officers caught up in a 2011 scandal back in the Tenderloin to target drug dealers with some of the same questionable tactics that brought them, and the department, scrutiny years ago.
Dubbed “Operation Disruption,” the city’s latest crackdown has drawn comparisons to past enforcement efforts known for opaque oversight, “War on Drugs” tactics and broad leeway given cops with checkered pasts.
But Chief Bill Scott said buy-bust operations are part of his department's tool kit, and they continuously disrupt the drug trade, which makes them a key part of the city’s fight against the opioid crisis.
“In the Tenderloin […] we have tweaked our strategies,” Scott told the Police Commission at the oversight panel’s Feb. 15 meeting. “We’ve trained another group of officers on narcotics operations and buy operations.”
From the beginning of July to the start of October of last year, police made 260 felony narcotics arrests in the Tenderloin compared with 245 arrested for narcotics sales in the first six months of 2022.
The undercover officer who bought crack from Palma on that Tenderloin corner was Lt. Kevin Healy, a department veteran called “Scrappy,” who was transferred in December to SFPD’s narcotics bureau, which he now leads.
More than a decade earlier, a plainclothes team he led in the Mission found itself mired in scandal. Its members, including Ricardo Guerrero and Jacob Fegan, were accused of lying on police reports and stealing from homes and residential hotels they illegally entered.
Then-Public Defender Jeff Adachi publicized the allegations against a group of officers, including those led by Healy, in 2011. The videos Adachi released of alleged misconduct had a domino effect that led to District Attorney George Gascón dismissing scores of cases and the department disbanding several units—all of which led to the feds convicting a handful of officers and SFPD submitting to federal oversight.
The controversy largely faded from public memory until a resurgence this past year of the kind of policing behind that troubling episode.
It’s unclear when or why the department put those three cops back in plainclothes, and, because records of police discipline are confidential, it’s hard to know if any of the three officers were penalized. But their names are on the DA’s list of officers with a record that could undermine their credibility in court.
Palma’s lawyer expressed shock that SFPD would put Lt. Healy, Guerrero, Fegan or anyone linked to a serious scandal on an assignment with less oversight and few, if any, body cameras.
“They are participating in the same operation where the only corroborating evidence is from other police officers,” Deputy Public Defender Elizabeth Hilton said in court. “The question is: Should you believe him?”
SFPD declined to explain its decision, citing its legal obligation to keep personnel matters private. But The Standard confirmed that the department in December moved Lt. Healy from robbery investigations to helm the unit in charge of buy-bust operations.
Fegan was assigned to the same narcotics unit in July 2021, per SFPD. As for Guerrero, he’s been working out of Ingleside Station since August, but was the undercover buy-bust officer with Fegan when they arrested Palma for a second time last year in the Tenderloin.
Healy, Fegan and Guerrero didn’t respond to a request for comment. Neither did their union, the San Francisco Police Officers Association.
In court, however, Healy acknowledged being present during the alleged illegal searches.
The Buy-Bust Squad
Aside from the episodes of alleged wrongdoing illustrated in the videos Adachi released, the trio was linked to at least three other searches that led to allegations of unlawful entry, theft and one instance of alleged excessive force.
In all three cases, the people targeted in the searches alerted public defenders after seeing those same officers in the news about the illegal hotel searches. And just this month, some of them testified in court about how those officers victimized them.
In testimony on Feb. 6, Javier Tenorio recounted how, on Aug. 19, 2010, a cop approached with questions about a case involving his stepson Harvey Salazar. That cop turned out to be Healy.
“He took me outside, and he accused me of having drugs,” Tenorio said. “He told me to take everything out of my pockets, and the only thing he found were my keys. He took my keys and said, ‘Let’s go to your house.’”
Though Healy disputes the account, Tenorio said the officer entered his house without a police star, warrant or permission.
Guerrero and Fegan followed Healy inside where they searched Salazar’s room and left with boxes. Tenorio says he never saw what was in them but that he and his wife noticed several belongings were missing: a shaver, a camera, a collection of hats.
When Joe Melvin took the stand, he recounted the night in 2011 when Healy, Guerrero, Fegan and a fourth officer allegedly left with cash and a computer tablet after searching the home he shared with his boyfriend.
“They proceeded to tear apart my home looking for drugs,” Melvin testified. “It was rather traumatic.”
That 90-minute search required a couple days of cleanup for Melvin. Though he said he didn’t see officers take anything firsthand, he realized while putting the house back together that the $300 and tablet were gone.
A few days after reporting the missing items to Mission Station where the three cops were assigned, Melvin said an officer showed up to his own workplace.
“Then I decided that $300 and an electronic tablet weren’t worth my job, and I called Mission Station to retract my statement,” Melvin said in court. “I didn’t want to provoke them any further.”
Both cases were dismissed by the DA after Adachi publicized the allegations.
The illegal searches, which came to be known as the Henry Hotel scandal, receded into history, but the officers involved continued to find themselves in hot water for their plainclothes work.
In February 2021, a man named Sergio Lugo wound up with a broken jaw after allegedly assaulting an officer in Healy’s robbery unit. The case against the man was dismissed after the incident.
Other plainclothes units in San Francisco have come under the microscope lately, too.
Sgt. Daniel Solorzano—who was accused of biased policing against Black people—faced familiar allegations last fall in litigation accusing him of exclusively going after Latinos in plainclothes drug busts. Chief Bill Scott defended Solorzano’s policing.
Another lawsuit accused a plainclothes unit of wrongdoing for making a traffic stop in March 2022, even though SFPD bars plainclothes officers from doing so, and for manufacturing a reason to search the car. The officer's actions led the federal court to dismiss a case against the defendant earlier this year.
Civil rights attorney Adanté Pointer said the problem is bigger than Solorzano.
“SFPD has a documented history of selectively busting people,” Pointer said. “It encourages cowboy activity. You have people who are essentially being unsupervised.”
Undercover and plainclothes tactics are often effective and should have a place in policing, defense attorney Martin Sabelli said, but he agrees that such units in San Francisco get too little oversight and too much leeway.
“SFPD definitely does not have a history of serious oversight of its officers,” he said.
And in his view, permissiveness and lack of scrutiny undermines more than just SFPD’s gang and narcotics enforcement, as it spreads elsewhere in the department.
New Ops, Old Tactics
Since the Henry Hotel scandal, buy-bust operations have been less and less common, say legal observers.
“There was a real slump in these undercover operations,” veteran deputy public defender Kleigh Hathaway said. “After the Henry Hotel, all of these officers, who were the main undercover buy officers, the buy-busts stopped.”
For the most part, anyway.
For instance, SFPD conducted buy-bust operations in the Tenderloin, but most arrests a year ago for intent to sell were made by uniformed officers, former Tenderloin Station Capt. Chris Canning told the police commission in early 2022.
When District Attorney Brooke Jenkins took office last summer, SFPD began ramping up plainclothes enforcement, according to lawyers representing some of the people caught in the resulting arrests.
The buy-bust tactics continued as Jenkins’ tough-on-crime campaign aimed mostly at drug dealers led to the electoral victory that secured her place as the city’s top prosecutor.
Aside from their reliance on officers with checkered pasts, the efficacy of buy-busts is up for debate.
One critique of plainclothes and undercover drug busts is how the department can excuse the use of so many officers for one or two arrests, such as in the Palma case.
But larger critics have asked if the operations are any better than uniformed officers making the same arrests.
Police Commission President Cindy Elias has for years questioned how SFPD measures the efficacy of such operations—or if they're measured at all. She posed the question again to Canning in a recent commission meeting.
“What statistics show that these buy-bust tactics are effective in the Tenderloin?” she asked.
Canning didn’t provide an answer, but still defended the buy-busts.
“I will say that as a tactic used in [a] strategic way, it can be effective at deterring specific trends in a very special area,” he said.
But for lawyer John Burris, such tactics are a shell game. And the worst part?
“They are targeting the wrong people,” he added. “You are taking people for nickel and dime bags.”
Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at [email protected]