When you walk my City, all 46.9 square miles of it for as many years as I did when I was a beat cop, you get to know the place literally from the sidewalks up.
San Francisco is by record one of the most densely packed cities in the United States, and at 8 miles by 7 miles, ocean to bay, it is a very interesting place to work and live.
One of my grizzled street sergeants cracked accurately wise when he told me, “Dave, if you imagine this country as a gigantic Danish pastry, it looks like someone lifted one edge up in the air in back east, and all the nuts rolled here!”
Having by now lived and worked in my city for over 30 years, I today still can’t disagree with Joe.
In the bureaucracy that is any law enforcement organization, the chain of command starts with the chief and his/her deputies and assistants and then broadens out into a Table of Organization that resembles an Egyptian pyramid. Yes, exactly like a 6,000-year-old hard stone edifice that has a clear view from the top tiers, and less so the closer you get to the ground.
Foot beat cops are correctly called “Ground Pounders.”
The Field Training Station that is the Mission Police District has the most vibrant, exciting, diverse, and colorful residential population that any bunch of cops would ever have to deal with.
Instead of the Oz land of Lions and Tigers and Bears (oh my), we had multitudes of Hookers, and Dopers, and Thieves (to make go bye-bye).
It was fun.
Before you got your own shiny radio car in a fixed patrol sector, you had to survive the gauntlet that was being assigned to one of the foot beats. When I came to the battered hulk of a police station that was 1240 Valencia, the minimum time walking a beat was two years.
Three (uniform assignment), David (Company D-Mission Command), 40-45 (numerical series) was so part of the SFPD historical organization, that in addition to our new snazzy (HEAVY!) PIC belt-worn radios, we actually had smallish beer keg sized blue metal callboxes about every 3 blocks on the main streets of our beats.
The phones worked sometimes, (when they had people to work the switchboard downtown that is), but those boxes were by now used to store spare ticket books, compact lunch bags, and (traditionally) a pint of “warming fluid” AKA Blackjack Bourbon.
The phone handsets inside were cleverly offset to one side of the box interior to accommodate 16-ounce containers. These boxes were used by the cops, maintained by the fire department, while the public works people owned the wiring.
My city had a very East Coast legacy attitude when it came to foot beats. Each assignment was no more than eight blocks long, and two wide. Some of them ran 24 hours a day, rain, or fog. If anything was going on there, you were expected to know about it … beforehand.
Non-emergency calls for service were yours alone. These “paper calls” ranged from landlord eviction mediations to Quinceanera celebrations, all manner of domestic violence refereeing, to escorting the parish priest back from bingo with his cash box.
“Bless you my son, would you care to come in out of the cold for a wee nip?”
“Yes Father, as long as I can have some breath mints later?”
You owned that turf.
The joke (and reality) was that if they were going to give this district a coloscopy, the procedure would take place on these two combined beats.
(Think about it.)
Daytime, there would be four uniformed cops per beat call sign, with another full set riding the MUNI buses back and forth from 26th Street to 14th Street on Mission Street proper. Then add 4-8 narc and vice cop teams, four overlapping radio car sectors and two full size Black Maria custody buses that worked constantly in support.
It got busier after dark, and frequently stayed there.
At the south end of this beat was Mission and Army Street, where there was “La Casa Vibre’ for cinnamon dusted Mexican Coffee. At the north end at 16th and Mission there was a Greek place that had too many vowels in the name to pronounce, so everyone called it “The Greek Place.” They had espresso with freshly made baklava that was a thick honey cube about three inches square. In the middle at 20th and Mission was the “foot beat field office,” not surprisingly in a back booth at Hunts Doughnuts. We actually had a small file cabinet under the worn faded Formica counter.
The northern 41 was heroin addicted hookers like Brenda and Lucy. The south end 42 had crack heads and dusters like Big John and Jaime. Doorway drunks like Mr. Stinky and countless others were like grains of sand everywhere.
The flatlands east of the Mission Street chaos were centered on the 24th Street business main drag from the Graffitied haven of Hoff Alley (Behind the no-longer illuminated Golden Arches of Mikky Dees), 10 blocks easterly to the heavily traveled emergency room entrance of San Francisco General Hospital.
Everyone here spoke some heavily accented version of my insufficient high school Spanglish. As a new cop on this beat, you learned very quickly how to say put your hands up (“Manos Arriba”), and numerous other un-printable phrases to make sure that guns, broken bottles, and machetes were rendered temporarily less lethal.
If you had ever heard of a Spanish speaking gang or south of the border drug cartel, they had a franchise somewhere here. A beat cop’s time in this area was divided between red vs. blue gang colored body counting, piranha like automotive chop shops, or Angel Dusters who liked to fling their bodies off of roof tops or run nekked into traffic.
Here, the air-conditioned back room of the Rosevelt Tamale Parlor was a refuge.
This was advertised as a public relations based assignment, more than an attempted (fruitless) crime-containment exercise. This beat centered on the increasingly dynamic (and therefore politically important) center of gay social activity around Castro Street. Instead of crack cocaine and low rent prostitutes, there were multiple glitzy gay nightclubs with Aminol Nitrate dispensers over-working in the ceilings, and mobile piercing studios working out of vans in public parking lots.
Numerous yahoos from less enlightened areas of the region were starting to frequent this area to beat up and harass people who didn’t share their rural sensibilities.
Solution? Put a couple of beat cops on Castro Street and arrest anyone from Tulare county driving a pickup truck, who is seen waving axe handles at well-dressed hand-holding male pedestrians.
Sgt Joe briefed the new beat cops: “These are taxpayers who deserve and will get protection from idiots.” And “What they do in or out of the public eye is no concern of anyone else’s, just as you would wish to do where you live and play.” And finally, “No posing for pictures with any of the guys in any of the leather bars.”
Author’s note: My wife who was then a serving cop with another agency asked to walk this beat with me one day. She put on a deep vee-cut blouse and tight jeans to do so. When we walked Castro street together, she put a smirk on her face and held my hand. I loved her sense of cop humor.