Is San Francisco too soft on crime?

July 9, 2009 7:01:13 PM PDT
It's a very unusual move. Members of the San Francisco Police Department are speaking out and complaining about the sentence a career criminal received after making a deal with the district attorney's office.

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The San Francisco police officers who solved this crime told the I-Team they thought they had the perfect case, which is why they were so surprised when the robber got away with what they call a "slap on the wrist" from the district attorney's office.

Earl Davis had only been out of custody for about two weeks, after serving five months in San Francisco County Jail for battery, when he robbed a Starbucks coffee shop at Fulton and Masonic in February.

Surveillance video clearly shows how the robbery unfolded. Davis steps up to the counter, with a hand in his pocket. He tells the 23-year-old cashier he's got a gun and threatens to shoot her if she doesn't give him all the money in the cash register. She calls over her 27-year-old co-worker, and Davis threatens to shoot her, too. So she hands over about $200.

"They didn't know if the guy had a gun or not. They were really shaken up and really scared, and I could see that, you know, it's something that is going to definitely affect them," said SFPD officer Orpheos Tarbox.

Officer Tarbox was first on the scene. He called in a description of the suspect, and Davis was arrested within minutes, hiding under a parked car with the cash he had just stolen.

"It was a textbook case of good police work with good witnesses and the public wanting to get involved," explained the officer. "And we thought we got a perfect case."

And it turns out, it wasn't even the first robbery Davis had tried to commit that day. Around 6:30 that morning, he goes into a Starbucks store in the Castro District. He says he has a gun and demands money. When the cashier refuses, Davis steals the tip jar.

Officer Tarbox says he thought Davis would serve hard time in state prison, especially considering his long criminal record.

"We're going to get you this time -- we're going to make sure you're going to jail, to prison, finally for something you did," he said.

There have been many police reports filed on Davis in the past 15 years. He has been convicted for auto burglary, theft, domestic violence, battery, DUI, and selling drugs.

Robberies like the one Davis committed at Starbucks typically draw a sentence of two to five years in state prison, especially when the evidence is so strong. But Davis got a deal from the district attorney's office, pleading guilty to second-degree robbery in exchange for nine months in county jail.

"I felt really let down. I felt personally let down by the justice system," said Officer Tarbox. "I don't know, I mean, I can't even imagine what victims feel when they see this. I mean, the people of San Francisco should be outraged by this."

Victims rights advocates say plea deals like the one Davis got send the wrong message to criminals.

"That is certainly not the way to deter crime. If anything, it probably would have the effect of just the opposite and encourage the individuals because they know they can get away with murder," said Dawn Sanders Koepke with Crime Victims United of California.

"This was less than what we would normally seek on a robbery case," said Jeff Ross who heads the criminal division at the San Francisco District Attorney's Office. "Am I completely happy with it? I wouldn't tell you that I am. But again, sometimes things like this will occur when we're training young lawyers up."

Ross argues District Attorney Kamala Harris and her staff are not soft on crime and that felony convictions increased 20 percent since she took office in December 2003.

"I don't mean any disrespect to the officer. Certainly he's entitled to his opinion, but to say that this office is not vigorously prosecuting serious felonies is somebody who doesn't really know what we're doing here," said Ross.

But officers walking the beat say criminals like Davis learn a different lesson on the street.

"These guys know, these criminals know, in San Francisco if you want to commit a crime, you come here, you do it, you plea it down, next thing you know, you do three months, that you should be doing 12 years in state prison for," said Officer Tarbox.

Critics of the district attorney's office say the conviction rate is not as good as it appears. You can read about that part of the story in a new I-Team blog.

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