The misconduct investigation into a San Francisco police unit of undercover officers forced prosecutors to drop another 42 criminal cases Wednesday afternoon, District Attorney George Gascón announced.
The growing scandal, which has prompted separate investigations by the FBI, the district attorney and the Police Department, involves eight officers in the plainclothes unit that works the South of Market and Treasure Island areas. Their tactics have been called into question after the release last week of several videos that show officers busting into residential hotel apartments.
Officials from the public defender's office say the officers didn't have warrants and failed to properly identify themselves before illegally searching the apartments. They've also accused the unit of lying on police reports that detail how the searches were conducted.
So far, a total of 57 criminal cases have been dropped and the unit has been taken off the street. The officers have been assigned to administrative duties.
The defendants did not have to show up to get their cases dismissed by San Francisco Judge Anne Bouliane. It was not immediately clear when those in custody would be released.
Gascón, who was police chief at the time of the videotaped searches in late 2010 and early this year, was appointed district attorney in January. He said he believes most of the officers in the city are "doing the right things day in and day out."
Still, he said that "out of an abundance of caution" his office has been scouring reports to find pending cases involving the officers within the Southern Station's plainclothes unit.
Keeping people in jail when evidence exists that might lead to their release is "less than ethical" and a violation of legal obligations, he said.
Gascón asked for defense attorneys' help in identifying cases involving the unit. Interim Police Chief Jeff Godown and Gascón have both criticized Public Defender Jeff Adachi for releasing the videos at news conferences.
"That information should be given to us immediately," Gascón said. "This is not a game, this is not something that we want to have a press conference every other day when we have a new tape. This is real. It involves people's lives.
"At the end of the day, we all lose if we let the wrong people go," he said.
Adachi, meanwhile, has countered that prosecutors were aware of the officers' misconduct because the first video was aired in court days before he contacted the media.
He said he has now extended his probe into all cases in which it is believed that officers used master keys to enter residential hotel rooms across the city. Adachi says some of the videos released last week show the officers entering apartments with master keys when they didn't have warrants.
Gascón pledged to prosecute people arrested by the plainclothes officers if there is evidence to support the case.
Not all the 57 dropped cases were linked to drug busts. Some involve weapons, grand theft or burglary charges. Eight involve allegations of theft based on one or more undercover officers posing as vulnerable people in a crime-plagued area. Typically, suspects are arrested after attempting to rob the officer. Three of those eight cases were charged as felonies.
Adachi said he welcomed the decision to drop the cases, but reiterated his demand for seven years' worth of reports from the suspended unit.
Meanwhile, Godown said he intends to begin "refresher" training on search and seizure procedures for about 100 plainclothes officers in other city units. That could begin as soon as next week.
He said the department is reviewing all the undercover operations to make sure their searches and arrests have been done properly.
"We're going to audit every operation in the city," Godown said. "As of this moment, there is no other indication of any allegations of misconduct in any of the other districts."