Neighbors greet Police Officer Nathan Bernard or give a wave as he strolls down Cortland Avenue, a quiet retail strip perched above the city in Bernal Heights. Through his cell phone, Bernard is becoming closer to residents every day. When it rings, it’s likely not his wife or his boss, but a local merchant with a problem.
The cell phone he carries on his foot beat is a new service jointly supported by the Ingleside Police Station and the Bernal Business Alliance to bring beat cops closer to the community they serve.
A similar service is just days away from coming to 24th Street in the Mission District, said Capt. Steve Tacchini, who put in a request for phones four weeks ago.
If the project works on 24th Street it will be expanded to officers patrolling parks and those addressing quality-of-life issues with people such as the homeless, said Tacchini.
“We’re going to try this out on one beat and see how it goes,” he added.
Capt. David Lazar of the Ingleside Police Station introduced the project in Bernal Heights in August along the half-mile stretch of Cortland Avenue from Mission to Gates streets. So far, officers get only a few calls a day from merchants mostly wanting help getting people out of their stores, said Bernard.
“I love it because I can directly call the person who can help me. I don’t have to get lost in the whole queue of a dispatch desk,” said Ken Shelf, owner of Four Star Video on Cortland and vice president of the Bernal Business Alliance (the organization that foots the $49 monthly cell phone bill).
Just as it works in Bernal Heights, the phone numbers will be available to anyone living or working within the 24th Street beat, which stretches from Valencia to Potrero streets. There are one or two officers per shift walking the beat and each will carry a phone.
“It will give people the opportunity to contact officers directly,” said Tacchini.
Tacchini said he envisions the service to be primarily used to send officers text messages. This is a fundamental difference between the two projects, which Bernard said has “given a more personalized approach to policing.”
Erick Arguello, founder of the Lower 24th Street Merchants and Neighbors Association, said texting could create a hurdle to making police more accessible to Mission merchants. A lot of older business owners don’t have cell phones and many can’t write in English, so texting wouldn’t be an option, he said.
“Many of these merchants are a lot older and are used to old-fashioned phone calls,” said Arguello, who hopes people will have the option to call.
“We have dispatch for the phone calls,” said Tacchini. “We don’t want the officers to become overwhelmed.”
While it’s unclear how the calling-versus-texting issue will be resolved in the Mission, expediting and personalizing the process of contacting police is the primary intent of giving officers cell phones.
Merchants and residents in both Bernal Heights and the Mission complained of the inefficiency of calling 911. Currently, the only option beyond 911 is the police department’s non-emergency line. Both are directed through a central office.
“I’ve called 911. It can take several minutes to talk with a dispatcher,” said Ryan Wanslow, a barista at Haus, a cafe on 24th Street. “If the guy’s two blocks away and I can call him directly, I think that would be money well spent.”
Police stressed, however, that the phones are not to be used for serious emergency situations.
Suzanne Collins, director of programs at the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center, said she believes the only way for the phones to be effective is if the police reach out to community members.
“If the officer is successful in forming relationships, that makes residents more comfortable picking up the phone,” said Collins. “Our officers have done that.”
That will take time in the Mission. Police are focusing on 24th Street in an effort to “penetrate that community deeper,” said Tacchini.
“There is more room to grow with that community, especially the non-English-speaking folks,” he said. “This is a new way to do that.”
So far, the community appears open to the idea.
“I think it’s an excellent idea. Even if the beat officer can’t get here, he could call another patrol car for you,” said Gabriella Lozano, owner of L’s Caffe on 24th Street.
Although the idea is new to San Francisco, police departments across the nation have been providing cell phones to beat officers and are looking for new ways for technology to assist them.
In an effort to get more officers out walking the beat, last month the city of Baltimore approved $3.5 million in federal stimulus money to be spent on providing more than 2,000 of the city’s police officers with smart phones by the end of the year. The phones will include PocketCop, an application that provides access to vital databases.
Also using PocketCop, the police department in Soldotna, Alaska, won an award last year for their introduction of smartphone technology, the first of its kind in the state.
With the help of this technology, officers have immediate access to local, state and federal criminal databases and can run a plate from anywhere they have service.
Though the phones have yet to arrive, Tacchini doesn’t think they’ll be smartphones. And it’s unclear if what works in Bernal will also work in the Mission.
The scene on 24th Street can be overwhelming. Though it’s only one mile from Cortland Avenue in Bernal, the blaring music, honking horns, and history of gang violence can make it seem a world away.
Officer Luis Prieto currently walks the 24th Street beat during the day. He said he tries to integrate with the community and encourage merchants to feel comfortable contacting the department, but many are afraid to talk to him for fear of deportation or retribution from gangs.
“Even if it’s just stolen bananas,” said Prieto. “We can’t do anything if we don’t know about it.”
Arguello partly attributes this hesitance to the fact that most beat officers are only temporarily assigned to the beat.
“Most of these guys aren’t around long enough to bond with the community and gain their trust,” said Arguello.
Officer Steven Keith, who has walked a beat in the Mission for nearly seven years, is the lone officer permanently dedicated to the corridor.
Keith works in the evenings, after many businesses have closed. As a result, the merchants that are in the neighborhood only during the day never see him.
Many around in the evening, however, do know Officer Keith, and have formed a relationship with him, said Arguello.
As the 24th Street project is still being formulated, the support for the pilot project on Cortland Avenue is clear.
“It’s becoming like the Andy Griffith show here,” said Shelf, smiling while illuminating the gulf between the two beats. “We feel so safe. It’s great.”