On a cold, rainy night the Mission District is quiet, except for the alarms. Officers Tim Davis and David Radford have to check when an alarm goes off, to make sure there are no break-ins — even though most of them ring false.
As a reporter on a ride along with two Mission police officers, I am wearing a bulletproof vest, balancing a searing cup of coffee and scribbling notes.
Shadowing Mission cops for the night doesn’t start in the patrol car; it begins with a formal request through the SFPD’s public affairs department that takes nearly two weeks to process. When my request is finally approved, the evening starts in the Mission Station lobby, waiting for the officers to get dressed and be briefed.
Ready to embark, Davis briefs me on the patrol car’s computer system. It shows what every officer in the Mission district is responding to at that moment. It lists all Mission locations where crimes have been reported in the past few minutes. It tracks calls, looks up license numbers and cross-references criminal records.
A middle-aged man the officers call Archie comes out of the drunk tank and starts asking me questions. He staggers, slack-jawed. Davis calls me into the offices as Archie yells and bangs on the glass partition before being escorted out of the building. Unbeknownst to the officers or me, Archie would become a recurrent presence throughout the night.
The language of police is an alphanumeric code. Davis breaks it down in the office. Mission District is section D (David) of the city.
The Mission is divided into six sectors. We are a patrol car of two officers in the sixth sector, which primarily patrols locations in the Mission, though officers can respond to calls in Noe Valley and the Castro as well. Because there are two officers, a number one is put in front of the sector number — so we are called 16, just as a two-officer car in sector two would be 12. Any time the officers respond to dispatch they will identify themselves using the code David16.
Before we leave the station I ask Radford if rain decreases the crime rate. He says that it just means there will be different kinds of crimes. Most people stay indoors. Domestic disturbances go up, and car break-ins, while the number of assaults goes down.
“You don’t really get used to it,” he says. “You learn to tolerate it, I guess.”
Once we’re under way, one of the first calls we receive is a noise complaint at Ayutla Restaurant on 24th between York and Hampshire streets. A heavy metal band is playing in the back and the music booms through the windows and outside as young men with long hair in black garb exit the traditional Mexican restaurant for a smoke. It’s a little before 10 p.m. and Radford says they have to cut the music.
The complainant also wants to talk to the police. Around the corner on York Street, Davis knocks on the door again and again. A dog starts barking and an older man comes to the door.
“Why don’t you just cuff ’em all?” the man asks Davis. He complains that the owner frequently hosts live music. The officers listen without providing much in the way of sympathy. But Radford notes, “If I lived above this, I wouldn’t be too happy.”
Much of the night’s work is spent patrolling, listening to the dispatch and the rain — pouring one moment, clear the next. The fluctuations match the calls.
When the rain stops we receive a call of an 800, “a crazy person,” according to Davis. We ride to 26th and Guerrero streets, where a man recently out on probation is sitting with his life’s possessions. He is singing loudly.
As the rain begins again there’s a call that the alarm has been tripped at the Sports Basement on 15th and Bryant streets. The cops make sure the building is secure.
“Sometimes if there’s a broken window or if the building isn’t secure, we have to stay until morning, until someone comes,” says Radford.
Cruising up and down Capp Street, the officers look for prostitution and other shady behavior. They tell me that once the street is saturated with undercover police and decoys, the trade will likely move on. This business used to be concentrated on Shotwell Street, they say, adding that it’s really difficult to catch the johns.
The officers talk about how the Mission has changed. Five years ago the U.S. District Court indicted 29 members of the MS-13 gang. It was a turning point in the criminal landscape of the Mission. While gang crime is still at the forefront of the Mission cops’ minds, they say the Sureños went underground and the violence has decreased.
Now police see a lot more robberies like the snatch-and-go theft of smartphones on the street, the officers say.
Then Davis utters a word I never thought I would hear from a cop’s mouth: gentrification. He says it’s the reason for the shift in activity toward property crimes these days.
“Two blocks east of Valencia isn’t a good place at 3 o’clock in the morning,” says Radford, “or any time, for that matter.”
Recalling the man released earlier from the drunk tank, the officers say Archie allegedly tried to vandalize a news van parked near the 24th Street BART plaza shortly after he was escorted out of the police station.
Davis calls Archie a “chronic inebriate.” Extreme alcoholism damages internal organs and carries the risk that the individual may drink himself to death.
We get several calls to single-room occupancy hotels for what cops call “no merit” — a call that turns out to be nothing.
Around 1 a.m. the dispatch gets a call for a domestic disturbance at an address on South Van Ness. Archie has allegedly thrown objects across his parent’s kitchen and broken some bowls. They called the cops. Three black-and-whites show up to the house, including the one I’m in.
Three officers go up to the door and knock, and an elderly man answers the door. But before the cops can enter, Archie quickly comes up from behind him and tries to slam the door.
The officers shove their way in. Archie becomes agitated. The officers try to handcuff him but the cuffs won’t fit around his wrists. One of the officers goes to the trunk of his patrol car to get zip-cuffs, the white plastic handcuffs generally used at mass demonstrations. Meanwhile, Davis talks with Archie’s parents.
Archie is arrested for being a danger to others. Because the arrest follows multiple offenses on the same day, they don’t just take him back to the drunk tank on Valencia Street — this time he’s going to the county jail at 850 Bryant.
As Archie is taken to the back of a patrol car, Davis looks up his record on the computer. Up pops his rap sheet: 60 felonies and 127 misdemeanors.
After the excitement with Archie, the pace of the night slows. The bars close without further incident. I drop off the stiff bulletproof vest, which was starting to hurt my back. It’s a relief. Davis and Radford offer a ride home.
A hard rain falls again. As a reporter, I try to imagine what the rest of the officers’ night will be like. Their shift ends at 7 a.m. Then I think of Archie, sobering up in the county jail, and hope he gets some help. That he won’t have another night like this.
After Mission Local’s reporter accompanied police on patrol, the relative calm in the Mission District depicted in this story was broken when a teenager was slain on March 30 on Bryant Street. Read that story here.
Clarification: To better reflect the fact that sector 6 police more regularly patrol Mission locations than Noe Valley and Castro locations, the article has been changed to state that though sector 6 primarily patrols in the Mission, it responds to calls in Noe Valley and the Castro as well.