Police Captain William Griffin. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

[dropcap]Not [/dropcap]all that long ago, a retired San Francisco cop noticed an uptick in the number of black-and-white police cruisers out of Mission Station rolling by on Jersey or Elizabeth Streets.

Being a cop, and a retiree with time on his hands, he naturally made inquiries — and, naturally, gossiped about it to his fellow cops and retirees. What he picked up is that Mission Station cops were headed to the Philz Coffee on 24th and Douglass, joining officers from the nearby Academy as well as cops heading over from Ingleside, Park and even Taraval Stations. This neck of the woods, it would seem, would be a good place for thieves to avoid.

Not every neighborhood, particularly in the expansive territory patrolled by cops from Mission Station, can make such a claim. Quite the contrary: Mission Station cops are among the most besieged by calls for service in all the city. And that, we are told, explains why some of them were driving up side streets rather than on 24th.

This way, they purportedly wouldn’t be flagged down by citizens in need.

It’s not a good look when cops attempt to elude the public so as to expedite a trip to the cafe. The San Francisco Police Department doesn’t, cloyingly, emblazon its vehicles with the motto “To protect and serve,” as other police departments do — but it’s not as if that exempts officers from the concept of community policing.

Again, quite the contrary. Being more visible, not less, is the order of the day. It’s something a number of police higher-ups have long called for; getting more cops out on foot beats is a mandate laid down by Chief Bill Scott within days of his January swearing-in. And it’s something the public desires, too. There’s just no solid argument as to why having cops more visible and more enmeshed within the communities they protect and serve would be a negative.

If Bill Griffin, the recently reassigned former captain at Mission Station, was enamored of foot beats, he kept it well-hidden. When queried by my Mission Local colleagues, he didn’t ever seem to be able to place where the foot patrols would, in fact, patrol. That information had to be pried out of his subordinates.

Griffin, oddly, pared back the monthly community meetings to every other month — in this, the Mission, the city’s most diverse, complicated and outspoken neighborhood. He did say he would use the off months to meet with different groups, but he did not install a citizens’ advisory committee, meaning the Mission — again, the city’s most diverse, complicated, and outspoken neighborhood — remains the only station without one. Both police officers and members of the public tell us Griffin seemed uncomfortable in his role and did not seek out nor engage with the community at a level they’d expect. Or demand.

And now he’s gone, after only about eight months on the job. On Oct. 21, Griffin was succeeded by Capt. Gaetano Caltagirone, an outgoing 50-year-old with a history of establishing, overseeing and walking foot beats. Mission Local has confirmed that Scott received a number of complaints from community leaders about Griffin, whom he gave the quick hook. The 36-year veteran has been reassigned to the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI), a group focusing on security and anti-terror matters that, in the words of a veteran cop, “meets and distributes federal funding.” Or, as he puts it in his next breath, “Siberia.”

[dropcap]Griffin [/dropcap]did not respond to multiple messages requesting comment for this story. His colleagues, some of whom have worked alongside him since the early 1980s, recalled him as “a decent cop” and “a guy who did his job” — but “not a ball of fire” and “not an all-star.” His longtime coworkers were jolted when he was selected this year to lead Mission Station; this was akin to a journeyman ballplayer being abruptly tapped to run point for the Warriors.

“Mission Station,” says a 30-plus year SFPD veteran, “is the gnarliest police station in the city. It is the highest-maintenance station.” The Mission has both the venomous neighborhood and personal rivalries of a small-town backwater and the major crimes and social issues of a big city. It has the most communities in San Francisco and perhaps the starkest contrasts of wealth and poverty. It has property crime issues and violent crime issues and gangs and development battles and major protests and big parades. It has everything; it’s a microcosm of the city. “The Mission District,” sums up a veteran police captain, “is the unique place in the middle of a unique place.”

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Taking on the “busiest, highest-profile, walking-on-ice assignment in the city,” in the words of a longtime Mission Station cop, is the kind of thing some people relish — and others shrink from. Griffin, again, did not reply to our messages. But cops in his station and community members outside of it both said he didn’t behave as if he much wanted the job he had. Some cops went so far as to say they felt Griffin was being set up; he was given a job he temperamentally could not do, a “high-stress, high-labor position.”

Cops also picked up a message in Griffin’s assignment to the security unit, which both takes him out of a political and public-facing post and puts him in contact with a wealth of law-enforcement agencies. This, a retired SFPD veteran says, makes it a “sort of desirable job,” especially for older cops thinking about networking and lining up a post-SFPD paycheck. Plus, “it also gives you a break from police work.”

Make no mistake, listening to the kvetching of neighborhood activists is now police work. “There is,” concurs an SFPD contemporary of Griffin’s, “something to be learned here” regarding the station captain’s quick exit. “Bill came up at a time when there wasn’t the same level of expectations for community engagement that there are now. To be successful, particularly in a demanding station like Mission, you have to be engaged.”

Griffin exasperated community leaders by alternating between non-communicativeness and orotund soliloquies in which they walked away not remembering what it was they had just been talking about. One neighborhood lifer and prominent activist says Griffin called him by the wrong name on three separate public occasions, the last of which was during a meeting attended by Chief Scott and other police brass. This anecdote was repeated to us more than a few times by others, too; it was viewed as an indicator that Griffin was not particularly engaged with his community.

Mission Local spoke to a number of community leaders who made requests to Scott that he find a new captain for Mission Station. We asked Supervisor Hillary Ronen if she, too, made such a request to the chief.

She declined to answer the question.

[dropcap]For [/dropcap] those keeping count, this is the fourth captain at Mission Station in just about eight months. That’s an awful lot, but longtime neighborhood residents are used to the churn. Because of its status as a proving ground, the Mission can be for an ambitious captain what Gaul was for Julius Caesar. Do well here and you’re earmarked for high command. Fail and it’s off to Siberia.

And that works well for the SFPD. But does it work well for the Mission? The way things are, no one sticks around here very long, one way or the other; Mission Station, the city’s “gnarliest” and, arguably, most important, is a waystation for itinerant captains. It’s hard to see how cycling through leaders every couple of years (or less) helps out with “community policing.”

And so, neighborhood residents who cared to meet their new captain had the opportunity to do so, yet again, when Caltagirone hosted a public meeting on Oct. 26. The captain said all the right things: He’d institute foot beats, reinstate monthly meetings, and establish an advisory board.

And on the inside, word has filtered back that, unlike Griffin, or even his predecessor, Daniel Perea, Caltagirone has made a good impression on the working cops.

“Everyone has a lot of high hopes for Gaetano,” says a department veteran. “He’s a younger, energetic guy.”

Tick, tick, tick.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Obviously there was an extremely sharp contrast given the fact that Captain Dan Perea had set the standard and raised the bar when he got there! The Mission District station has the highest call volume anywhere in the city and has always been understaffed! Whether having police officers in a high visibility situation in radio cars or on foot patrol they are definitely a deterrent to those inclined to commit crimes! It has always starkly been that way having grown up in the Mission District and understanding the youth mentality most especially today where more likely a battle is fought with handguns as opposed to knives and chains! Many of us hoped that Captain Griffith would be successful but again it was visibly notable the sharp contrasts between himself and his predecessors! In talking with rank-and-file officers the new commanding officer comes highly-regarded and will again be a sharp contrast from the exiting commanding officer! Everyone in the community is looking forward to seeing beat cops doing exactly that walking a beat and getting to know the real community! The former was truly ill-at-ease engaging one-on-one or in a group setting and the new commanding officer will have to re-establish that relationship and again raise the bar!

  2. I just returned from a conference during which I stayed in downtown SF, on Market St and 8th St. It was shocking. Waking between the conference venue a few blocks up on Market and my hotel was, in the police chief’s words, a “unique” experience. Until the city embarks on a major makeover, I won’t be back.

  3. Hi Joe,

    Historically, the best Mission Station captains as universally reckoned by neighbors, station officers and staff:
    Greg Corrales
    Greg Suhr

    The worst was
    Ron Roth (who was exiled to Siberia/SFO after his Mission Station stint)

  4. This article is spot on, very surprised and glad to see it written in Mission Local. We need a lot more like this.

    In no way do I think that Captain Griffin was dumb or incompetent. I sat in on a couple of his meetings, and took away the same themes each time:

    1) Reactive instead of proactive — Had no defined plans for the Mission, was clearly overwhelmed with the volume of service calls.

    2) Killing time — when complaining about how many of his best lieutenants were rotating out (and up?) of the Mission, I often wondered if he was doing the same thing. The anti-terrorism group Griffin is now being assigned to seems like a great place to tack on any remaining years needed for pension.

    3) Minimal preparation — no connection from meeting to meeting, zero data showing good or bad results, mostly hand-waving or anecdotes.

    4) Permissiveness — often told stories of how “this is always how the Mission is”, or “it was way worse 20 years ago”.

    My thanks go out to the community leaders who similarly saw these weaknesses and asked for his removal. Our biggest loss in all this? Whatever number of talented police officers working in the Mission District that transferred out in the past 8 months, seeing no sign of a future in this station with Griffin in charge.

    Welcome to the new captain, any changes in the above 4 themes will go a long way.

    Unrelated — is this writer the same one who used to write a column for the free Silicon Valley weekly (maybe called the Metro?), where he would wander around abandoned parking lots and buildings in Santa Clara? If so, that was a great column and glad to have him writing for the Mission Local.

    1. Thank you for a very thoughtful comment. No, I am not the writer who wrote the column you mentioned in the Metro Silicon Valley. If you could provide me with a timeframe, I could figure out who that is … but, maybe, it’s my old colleague Will Harper?

      I appreciate your readership. Muchas.

      JE

      1. You made me want to look it up — it was Gary Singh who wrote those columns for the Metro. Something about your writing style was evocative of him to me…

        Regardless, great article and really appreciated the insight from former police vets. Confirmed a lot of things that I had long suspected, but had no way to know for sure. Please keep it up!