SF Police catching heat for using pass keys at hotels

May 25, 2011 9:50:10 PM PDT
San Francisco Police are taking heat for using pass keys to make arrests at hotels in the Tenderloin. The police chief says it's better than breaking down doors, but the public defender calls it a "double standard."

At a justice forum, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr was asked if undercover officers should be allowed to use pass key's to enter hotel rooms.

"I know that at all of these hotels they just as soon we not be breaking down their doors and then paying to fix the doors," Chief Suhr said.

In a recent case, the chief watched surveillance video from a Tenderloin hotel in which undercover officers could be seen entering a drug suspect's room. When a neighbor stuck his head in to see what was happening, officers in the room rushed out, grabbed the man around the neck and searched him.

The incident prompted a response from Deputy Public Defender Anne Irwin. "Can you imagine police officers arriving at the Ritz Carlton, informing the front desk that they'd like a key that opens all of the hotel rooms and (that) they don't need an escort thought the hotel, they'll just be doing what they'd like?" Irwin asked. "There would be public outcry."

Irwin says the way police behave in these single occupancy hotels (SRO) is wildly different from other hotels.

"Let's be clear: these are people's homes as much as anybody else's homes," Irwin said. "There is no different constitution for people living in SROs."

At the Ritz Carlton, the public relations manager told us that the privacy of the guests is their highest concern and the hotel strives to protect that privacy at all times.

At the Henry Hotel in the Tenderloin, the "no comment" from the desk clerk was a little less refined.

The operator of the Jefferson hotel affirmed police ask for pass keys.

"It's our policy to say no and to the best of my knowledge we have not given it to them," the Jefferson hotel operator said.

"It wouldn't bother me much," day trader Pat Schuler said outside the Ritz of police searches using pass keys. "I think in the end if they have due cause they have to do what they have to do."

It bothers some quite a bit in the Tenderloin, but outside the Henry Hotel, resident Ronnie Webb says it's on the people who stay.

"If you ever walk around here, most of these people around here act like they ain't got no sense," Webb said.

"That's just life," Freddie Douglas said.

For now, Chief Suhr says he's looking into the misconduct allegations and the practice of using pass keys. Suhr maintains that residents who agree to let police search their rooms submit to a legal search. The issue came to light because residents complained that police were searching without their consent and without warrants -- the FBI is investigating that claim.

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