Officers Luis Prieto (L) and Joseph Obidi arrest a man for public urination near Mission and 24th Streets.

The Beat — Cops on Foot

En Español

The San Francisco Police Department foot patrol sets out from the Mission District station on Valencia Street at around 11:30 a.m. It’s early January, the sidewalk is damp from the previous day’s rain, and a gray sky still hangs overhead.

It’s Friday, but it’s the first day of the work week for Officers Joseph Obidi, 24, and Luis Prieto, 28, who step into their day with this in mind: five more days pounding the pavement on 24th Street and elsewhere in the Mission, five more days without a squad car.

“We need a car,” Obidi says later, standing on a street corner.

“We say that every day,” Prieto says.

Imagine office life: white walls, tack-board cubicles. Imagine those walls dissolve to the street. Cars honk. Bus brakes hiss. A man pushes a shopping cart full of cans down the street. People shuffle past. A shop owner yells. For the next 10 hours, we walk. That’s a foot patrol. In the Mission, according to the latest official count in 2008, there are four foot beats. There are 63 in the rest of the city.

Obidi and Prieto, like other officers on foot, must ride the bus four times a day. Most rides, like the one we catch on our way to 24th Street this morning, are uneventful. They board at the front and pay with a Department-issued Translink card that also ensures they’re meeting quota. One of them heads to the back of the bus. Nobody gives the cops a second thought. Our rides last for just a few minutes.

We get off at the 24th Street BART Station, where the plaza is full of the usual mix of commuters and the down and out. Soon we get a call for a fight on Capp between 24th and 25th. By the time we arrive, we only see a few guys talking amiably over the hood of a truck. They haven’t seen anything.

Obidi, the taller and lankier of the pair, is a dark-skinned Nigerian who hails originally from Lagos. His family came to America in the late 1990s, and he went to high school in San Francisco. Occasionally, a word or two betrays a hint of an accent.

Obidi has been in the SFPD for around two years. Until July, he was a Marine Corps reservist with six years of service. During his year of active duty, Obidi spent time in Yemen, but he refuses to tell me a word about what he did there.

We reach Shotwell and 24th. Obidi, wearing prescription black sunglasses, approaches a disoriented man in a 49ers jacket with an untamed beard and a weathered face. There’s an open tall can of Budweiser sticking out of one of his front pockets.

Officer Obidi banters with a suspect before taking him in.

Officer Obidi banters with a suspect before taking him in.

The man says he’s trying to get to Mission Street. Obidi points back the way we came. He gets the man’s identification and calls his name in to dispatch. The man has a search condition, probably part of his probation, so Obidi pulls on a pair of blue latex gloves and gently puts the man’s hands against the brown brick exterior of George’s Market, the corner liquor store. He pulls from the man’s pockets a cell phone, a pair of earphones and a crumpled snack bag. We move on.

Prieto, a stout Latino with an open, friendly face, also grew up in the city’s Ingleside neighborhood. He talks more than Obidi. Prieto served in the Navy for eight years, right out of high school, working on F/A-18 Hornets on an aircraft carrier.

He and I watch as Obidi writes a ticket for a gold Toyota Highlander that’s parked too far from the curb at Bryant and 24th.

Prieto and I talk about how police use small mistakes – a busted taillight, a window that’s too darkly tinted, a turn made without signaling – as pretexts to check on people. Maybe someone is just an upstanding citizen, or maybe they’re driving a stolen car, or they have a search condition and made the mistake of packing a gun.

“If I was a criminal, I’d have my car looking brand new, like straight out of the factory,” Prieto tells me. “I wouldn’t give the police nothing.”

At the Liberty Tax Service franchise on 24th, between Treat and Harrison, Prieto and Obidi stop in for a visit. Carmen Benedet, a short, brown-haired woman wearing glasses, who runs the business with her husband, says the neighborhood seems quiet.

“Non-Hispanics don’t think you’re doing enough and Latins think you’re picking on them,” she says of the police.

“If you’re wearing a big black sweatshirt and pants below your butt-”

“And a white tee-” Prieto interjects.

“-you’re looking for trouble,” she says.

“Latins think they’ll be discriminated against,” Benedet says. “I can say these things because I’m Latina.”

She believes that many of the Latinos in the Mission are undocumented immigrants and that this makes them fear cops. A self-described member of the middle class, Benedet says that her own anti-authoritarian days are gone; now she likes the police.

“My parents didn’t like cops,” Prieto says.

Across the street, we visit Rita Alviar, a Mission District lifer who runs Mission Education Projects, Inc., a non-profit that tutors children and gives adults classes on parenting and job skills.

“She’s not afraid to tell you how she thinks things should be done,” Prieto says.

She tells us that the neighborhood seems better – there’s less of a gang presence, though she regularly sees four or five homeless men pushing their shopping carts.

“But that’s OK because there used to be 10 around,” she says. “People are now beginning to see that 24th Street is going to be like any other part of the city.”

We head back up 24th, passing a Latino man in jeans and a denim jacket who gets directions from Prieto in Spanish to a Kaiser hospital.

Back at George’s Market on Shotwell and 24th, there’s another man lying in the sun next to his shopping cart. Prieto leans down, and the two exchange a few words in Spanish.

As we walk away, Prieto explains that they call the man “Sergeant,” since he claims to have held that rank in the Salvadorian military.

Sergeant usually has a small, open bottle of vodka stashed in his clothes or in his cart, and whenever Prieto or Obidi run into him, they almost always manage to sneak it away.

“He never notices,” Prieto says with a smile.

We reach 24th and Capp. The Latino man in the denim jacket who was supposed to be heading to Kaiser is standing there.

“I’m lost,” he says.

Prieto tells him that Mission Street, where he can catch a bus, is a block up.

“Puta madre,” he curses, stepping into the street and nearly into an oncoming car.

Prieto shouts in Spanish for him to stop. The man halts, and the car drives by.

Behind us, someone is pissing next to a van in a fenced-off parking lot. Prieto and Obidi slowly saunter over. As the public urination draws to a close, Prieto talks to the man in Spanish.

Obidi seems to be the designated body-searcher in this pair, and he finds a permanent residency card in the man’s pocket. It says he’s 51.

“Don’t touch my green card,” the man says in English, teetering from side to side.

Prieto and Obidi ignore him as they wait for dispatch to give them the man’s background.

“OK, give me my green card, and my ticket,” he blurts. “I’ve got to go to court.”

“Where do you live,” Prieto asks patiently.

“I live on the street, I have to go to a shelter.”

He snatches the green card from Prieto’s hand. Obidi snaps on the cuffs and sits the man down on a concrete parking bumper.

Eventually, they cite him and let him go.

As we walk away, we see the lost man in the denim jacket for the third time. Now he says he’s looking for an ATM. We brush him off.

“He’s up to something,” Prieto says.

“Probably wants to buy a beer,” Obidi says.

We ride the bus back to the station for a short break and take it back out to the 24th and Mission BART station again. It’s approaching 3 p.m. Obidi and Prieto, as always, take it slow. When they’re walking on the sidewalk, most people pass them. They stop at every street corner to take in the scene. What seems strange but unremarkable on first glance often becomes, under persistent observation, a legitimate concern to a cop.

Like this brown-skinned girl in a red, button-up, short-sleeved shirt, leaning her back uneasily against the Mission Street bus shelter. She’s wearing glasses and black tights with calf-high boots. Her belly, distended in a way that suggests pregnancy, sticks out beneath her shirt. She seems drunk.

She pulls a skinny white guy in a hipster get-up towards her, sticking her hands into the pockets of his hooded sweatshirt. He’s wearing glasses, tight corduroys, Converses, and a red, white and blue winter hat.

Obidi approaches. The girl tries to walk away and ends up cornered between the glass and the seats inside the bus shelter. Prieto approaches the guy, but he doesn’t seem inclined to talk. An ambulance arrives; the girl has urinated on the ground.

The guy, who has been texting rapidly until now, realizes that reality has outpaced his desire to keep things casual. He reveals more information: The girl isn’t pregnant, but she is diabetic. They both attend the California Academy of Art. He became her roommate around a month ago. They had celebrated the weekend early today; she drank four beers and a tequila shot. He figured he could take her home to sober up. Prieto holds her passport. It’s from South Africa.

The paramedics take them away.

As we head toward Garfield Park at 25th and Treat, we pass a young Latino man in a black hooded sweatshirt with a black scarf tied snugly around his neck and slicked-back hair, listening to music in his earphones. Prieto says he’s a Norteño gang member, but we keep walking.

The soccer players at Garfield Park don’t seem bothered by the cops. As we round the corner of the recreation center, we see five guys sitting around on benches and an over-sized flower pot. There’s an open bottle of cheap vodka near one of them. They say it’s not theirs. On the opposite bench sits a young girl with buzzed hair, wrapped in a blanket and wearing flip-flops over childishly cartoonish socks. She looks shell shocked. An open bottle of purple MD 20/20 fortified wine, about three-quarters full, sits by her feet.

The recreation director comes out.

“I was sitting here eating peanuts and she walked by and gave me this odd look,” he tells us. The men tell Prieto in Spanish that they don’t know who she is.

Obidi tries to discern the girl’s story, but she refuses to respond and gives him nonsense answers. She appears to be drunk or suffering from some kind of psychosis. Obidi sees her name written in marker on a brown paper bag: Shannon Goodman.

“Is that your name: Shannon?”

She gives him a perplexed look. “That’s not my name. My name’s Brianna.”

He asks her where she’s from.

“I can’t go back there,” she says.

She picks up the cap to her bottle of MD 20/20 and flicks it at Obidi. That ends the discussion. Obidi puts her in cuffs and Prieto calls for a squad car to take Shannon back to the Mission station. The cop pulls up in his car and sees Obidi pouring the wine into the street by the curb.

“Ah – ghetto merlot,” he says.

It’s 4:30 p.m. now, and we’re on the bus back to the station. As we stand by the rear door, Prieto tells me about his family. His parents came from El Salvador and settled in the Ingleside. In middle school, Prieto’s brother started getting into trouble. He got jumped into the Norteños, and Prieto began running interference with their mother whenever his brother snuck out or got into trouble.

Then Prieto got jumped by the gang. When he came home battered and bruised, his mother decided it was time to leave. She moved the family to the East Bay, but Prieto’s brother just took BART into the city. Over the years, he wound up arrested several times and served stints in county jail and state prison. Since then, he has moved away and tried to sever those ties. Still, it’s a little awkward that his brother became a cop.

Back at the station, Shannon has her hands cuffed behind her to a bench in an intake room with institutional, tiled walls. I watch her through a window in the steel door. She still won’t give anyone a straight answer, but she’s laughing and getting along with her cellmates. Her passport says that she’s Canadian and entered the United States in early December. Her 21st birthday is coming up in a few weeks.

At 6:00 p.m., we catch the day’s last bus at 18th and Mission. Prieto heads to the back. Up front, a woman invites Obidi to visit a new restaurant where she works, a place with good sausage, apparently.

Another woman joins the conversation. She tells Obidi that she wishes cops rode the bus more often, particularly the 22 line.

We get off at 24th and Mission and walk a block to Capp. The beat, they tell me, consists mostly of the kind of things we saw today: homeless people and drunks, with the occasional fight. They’ve responded to calls for domestic violence and rape only once or twice.

Homicide is on the decline in the Mission: after 17 murders in 2008, there were four in 2009. Obidi responded to numbers two and three: the shooting in September of two men inside Papa Potrero’s Pizza at 24th and Potrero.

“One of the victims was lying half on the sidewalk, half in the street,” Obidi tells me. The first responding officer was doing chest compressions. Obidi started mouth-to-mouth. “But you could tell by the way the guy looked that he wasn’t going to make it. I’ve seen dead bodies before, but not something that happened right in front of me like that.”

At Portrero Del Sol, the skate park is bustling with dozens of guys under the lights. Obidi and Prieto walk through.

“I’m really f—ed up right now, what day is it?” someone asks.

Prieto tells him it’s Friday.

“So that means I broke my board on Tuesday and not Wednesday. What happened to Thursday?!”

Most of the skaters eye us warily.

“F—ing cops,” one of them mumbles into his cell phone.

“So we just came in and ruined the party,” Prieto says to me.

They pour out a few beers and leave. On the way out, at 25th and Utah, a car runs a stop sign. Prieto flicks his flashlight on, beaming it through the windshield at two wide-eyed boys. They stare back for a second. There’s a brief moment of hesitation before the car speeds off down Utah. Obidi runs to Potrero to intercept them if they turn around, but the car blasts by, heading toward Highway 101. Nobody got the plates.

As their shift ends, Obidi, Prieto and I head back to 24th and Treat. Some kids down the block jump down a stoop and run away.

“They’re ringing doorbells,” Prieto says. “I did that once.”

They head back to the station and I walk to the bus shelter at 16th and Mission to catch the 22 home. Shannon Goodman, the strange girl from Garfield Park, is sitting on one of the seats. She’s talking to a stranger about fairies.

  1. You’re only covering one part of the story. When people get arrested, they have court appearances, probably a public defender assigned to them. Why don’t you follow the public defender around? In all likelihood, you’ll get a very different perspective.

  2. Pingback: The Beat — Cops on Foot « Positive LEO

  3. Interesting story, different perspective of the Mission than the usual fare. U never really know who’s behind that uniform and shades. Nice to know cops are no different from the rest of our society. SFPD should hire more cops like these two.

  4. Great read, makes me more sympathetic toward the cops, for sure. I’m curious if those cops actually prevented any crimes though, other than a few degenerates from drinking.

  5. its tug of war, the public should know. its not just a few good men who can make a difference but you and you (me too) and many. taxes are lavish and they need to go to education and public’s safety and fare. is the prison to education CA govt spending ratio 1 to 1 and do prisons make us safer ? or do the officers ? or does many good citizens?

  6. Wow, I really enjoyed this piece of journalism, thanks for doing this hard work.