Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Police panel dismayed by patrol special case


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Apparently troubled that charges were filed in the first place, San Francisco police commissioners decided last week to send a case against an assistant patrol special police officer back to the police chief.

Assistant San Francisco Patrol Special Police Officer Roberto Ortega faced administrative charges that he picked up a prostitute and was hanging out in an area known for prostitution. The San Francisco Police Department had recommended that the Police Commission revoke Ortega's appointment.

The case against Ortega, which was filed in December by former Police Chief George Gascón, now the city's district attorney, said that Ortega had associated with a transgender prostitute and had frequented Divas, a transgender nightclub at 1081 Post Street.

In an interview the day after the March 16 hearing, out Commissioner Jim Hammer referred to the charge involving Divas as "outrageous." The charge "harkened back" to decades ago, "where people were targeted for being in places, like gay bars."

He said the first count, about associating with a prostitute, "could raise questions," but it was the type of thing "that needs to be dealt with by the chief."

Hammer explained the commission sending the case to interim Police Chief Jeff Godown by saying, in part, "At the chief's level, nothing really bad can happen. Only the commission can do serious things" such as take his beat away or suspend him.

He said at most, Ortega will be "verbally talked to by the chief."

Gascón charged Ortega with engaging in conduct which undermines the good order, efficiency, and discipline of the department and which brings discredit to the department, and failure to comply with moral character requirements.

The charges are not criminal. Patrol specials are not members of the uniform ranks of the San Francisco Police Department and are not city employees. They are held to all written orders of the department.

During last week's commission hearing, Hammer wasn't the only person among the seven commissioners who appeared dismayed by the Ortega case.

Commissioner Angela Chan said the case "didn't sit well" with her. She said whether a person associates with someone who is transgender and might have a history of prostitution doesn't mean no one should ever interact with that person.

"It did not seem to be any conduct worthy of discipline and [seemed] not to be the most tolerant way of dealing with these issues," said Chan of the case.

Ashley Worsham, an attorney representing the police, agreed at the hearing that the second charge shouldn't have been alleged in the complaint. However, she said the department still felt that Ortega's conduct could have been interpreted as an act to engage in prostitution.

Lou Silver, the attorney representing Ortega, did not respond to an interview request for this story. It is unclear if Ortega is straight or a member of the LGBT community.

According to the charging documents, San Francisco police Officer Michael Evans saw Diana Rivera, a "known transgender prostitute," approach the car Ortega was driving at Van Ness Avenue and California Street and start conversing with him at about 4:21 a.m. on March 21, 2010.

After Rivera got in the car, Ortega drove away but Evans, who was driving a marked patrol car, stopped him. Ortega told Evans that he was only stopping him because Rivera was transgender, which Evans denied, and that he and Rivera were friends and he was taking her to the bank in order to give her money. Evans admonished Ortega and Rivera that prostitution was illegal and released them, the charges say.

Rivera couldn't be reached for comment.

The documents also say that police officials learned that Ortega frequents Divas, where there were 46 calls for service from July 2009 to the time of the charges. In addition, he "presumably" wore his uniform to the bar.

Divas' Alexis Miranda didn't respond to an interview request.

The city doesn't consider patrol special officers – who are approved by the police department but hired by private businesses and individuals to provide security – to be police officers. According to a California Court of Appeal decision issued in 1996, patrol special officers aren't police officers.

In a letter to the Bay Area Reporter Alan Byard, president of the San Francisco Patrol Special Police Officers Association, has previously said that in the ruling by the California Appellate Court in 1995, "The court did not issue a determination that a 'Patrol Special' is not a police officer, but it did say a 'Patrol Special' is not a 'peace officer.'"

Spokesmen for the San Francisco Police Department and for Gasc—n didn't provide comment for this story by deadline.

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