It’s been two months, and Ginale Harris still can’t find the police officer who used to patrol her neighborhood.
This is the second time she’s asked the Police Commission what happened to him, and the second time she’s been turned down. All she can gather is that he’s been suspended from duty.
“Under the Copley decision, we can’t release that information,” says Commissioner Angela Chan, kindly but firmly. “That’s state law. You need to start thinking about a solution to your problem that may not be the solution that you want. You need to start thinking of a way that you can work with the new officers. Otherwise, you won’t get anything.”
Officer Nash Balinton had a particularly deft way of going about his business. “Big, big huge man,” says one of the women who has accompanied Harris to the meeting, tottering from side to side like an overloaded washing machine. “You could just call him and say, “There’s a crowd gathering outside,” and he would come and just…he didn’t make a big hustle and bustle about it. He would just come up and say, “Hello, how you doing, nice night, and then” — she pantomimes a balletic frisking motion — “Oh! What’s this! A nine millimeter? What were you planning on doing with this?”
“If he saw your child someplace where your child shouldn’t be, he would pick your child up, give you a call about it, and drive them to your house,” interjects Joanna Hernandez. Her son is one of the children that Balinton kept an eye on. She found it a nice change of pace from situations like the time a police officer mistook her son for a suspect in a case, held a gun to his mouth, and threw him to the floor.
Bernal Dwellings is not an easy community to police. As an historically African American housing project surrounded by a Latino neighborhood, its residents feel suspicious toward the police, and abandoned and ignored by the city, residents say. Racially motivated gang warfare is not uncommon and neither, to hear their stories, are incidents of police force.
Balinton vanished from the beat first, replaced without any notice. Then the officers who had habitually worked with him — John Zachos, Bobby Sanchez, Pete Richardson, Mike Moody and Joe Valdez — began to be reassigned to other stations.
In the meantime, gun battles between African American and Latino drug dealers around Garfield Park have become even more frequent. Two weeks ago there was a shootout in front of Bernal Dwellings. The cops who came to the scene were new, rookies. Harris had never seen them before. They were young and brusque, and treated everyone, including Harris, like a suspect, she says.
“I asked one of them, ‘Who are you? What’s your name?’ He said, ‘That’s irrelevant.’ I said, ‘Do you talk to your mother like that?’ I took out my phone and I called Captain Corrales on speed dial,” she said, referring to the Mission Police Station’s chief.
“I like Captain Corrales. But the city keeps on sending these cops to the Mission to get trained. Bernal Dwellings needs police that the community knows and respects.” After the officers left, Harris found several empty shell casings they had missed around the broken windows. She packaged them up in white printer paper and sent them to the police station.
An article in the San Francisco Chronicle from 11 years ago describes Balinton as a “hero cop” taken off the streets of the Bayview after he pled no contest to charges of false imprisonment by deceit filed by an ex-girlfriend. Typically the crime is listed as a felony, but somehow in Balinton’s case it was listed as two misdemeanors — saving his job, but stripping him of his right to carry a gun.
He’d already been stripped of his position in an elite homicide squad and suspended from duty. He had also been accused of using excessive force and attempting to extort money from a suspect’s family (he was cleared of both charges), but was also rumored to be in negotiations with movie studios over the rights to his story.
At the time the Chronicle story was written, it looked as though Balinton’s neighborhood cop days were over. Instead, he became the hero cop of Bernal Dwellings.
“I like Nash Balinton,” Commissioner James T. Hammer tells Harris as he walks past her toward a bank of elevators. “I respect him. We used to work together back when I was the district attorney. He could go into any community and be accepted.”
Harris looks tired. It’s been a long day and despite all the kind words and offers of assistance, at the end of it, all she’s been promised is more meetings. The elevator doors close, and Hammer is gone.