Covering the Police is a collaboration with UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Officer Danny Casey has been a beat cop in the Tenderloin for about five years.
“You’ve probably walked around and seen people shooting up and smoking crack, right?” he tells me as I stand with Casey and his partner, Officer Kevin Cuadro, at the corner of Turk and Larkin, a notorious neighborhood spot for narcotics sales. “I mean, it’s kind of bizarre.”
The smallest of the 10 police districts, the Tenderloin includes the open-air drug markets of “Pill Hill” and the blatant heroin and crack use at U.N. Plaza. I spent the day observing foot patrol officers on their beat here, and it is clear that Casey and Cuadro toe a fine line in picking and choosing what laws to enforce.
Casey introduces me to known drug dealers, and he openly asks them what they sell and how much. They have known Casey for years, and reply with surprising candor and only a hint of hesitation. Dealers appear to know this crime is not necessarily a cause for arrest unless Casey catches them actually selling.
Capt. Carl Fabbri, who took over the Tenderloin Station late last month, said that Tenderloin residents understand there’s a lot of narcotics activity in the area — buying, using and selling. But above all, he said, community members want the police to have a strong physical presence in the neighborhood in order to feel safe.
“We’d love to make arrests in those cases,” Fabbri said, referring to officers who see drug deals. “But we need to be realistic about the demands of the community as far as other types of crimes. I mean, when there’s physical violence going on, people with guns, robberies, assaults — which we have a lot of in this district — we don’t want the officers in the station booking, packaging up narcotics and dealing with a prisoner.”
On the street, Casey shouts a friendly greeting in Spanish to a young Latino man across the street.
“Edwin, come here my friend!” he says.
The two perform a familiar fist-pound greeting. Edwin flashes a hesitant smile and nods cordially as they chat about the Mexico versus Honduras soccer game.
Casey pauses, and continues in Spanish.
“Hey my friend, you are not talking very clearly,” he says. “How much do you have there?”
Edwin opens his mouth to reveal a package delicately balanced in the very center of his tongue. It’s an uneasy moment followed by a silence between the two men. “Ten,” Edwin replies.
Officer Casey sighs, like a disappointed father more than anything. He’s made his power play, but there appears to be an understanding that he has no plans to arrest Edwin. This same interaction happens multiple times as I observe Officer Casey. No arrests were made.
“I’m not going to try to do anything because my fear is that he’d swallow it and then it becomes a medical emergency,” Casey said. “It’s a huge challenge working down here because you do really want to make an impact and clean up the neighborhood. But the truth is, if you make one dope arrest, it’s kind of like they are replaced within minutes with somebody else.”
Officer Cuadro chimes in. “You’ve gotta fight the right battles,” he said. “Our city doesn’t want us to arrest these people, then we’ve got to find alternate solutions to the problem.”
Many arrests stopped after 2014 when California voters approved Prop 47, which reduced “non-serious, nonviolent crimes” from felonies to misdemeanors unless the defendant has prior convictions for murder, rape, certain sex offenses or certain gun crimes.
“So before we’d be able to arrest somebody for just a small amount of methamphetamine or crack or heroin, and now that’s not possible. They get issued a ticket,” said Casey. “I didn’t design this neighborhood, I didn’t make up the rules. It’s just the way it is.”
Later, Fabbri added that officers would be making a lot of arrests of dealers. “The dealers are pretty much not welcome anywhere,” he said, and went on to explain that dealers were a big focus of complaints at community meetings.
“Everybody complains about the behavior of drug dealers, not so much the drug dealing, but the intimidation and the way that they talk to women on the street for example,” Fabbri said. “That’s the behavior that they complain about, and that’s the behavior that we are trying to address by police officers’ presence.”
Just a few blocks away from Casey and his partner, Officers Ricky Ramirez, 29, and Jonathan De La Cruz, 24, are just starting their foot patrol shift.
They’ve just been cat-called from across the street. I catch them on foot, walking from the Tenderloin Police Station down towards Market Street.
A woman saunters too close. Her eyes narrow. I wonder what she’s up to. She points a finger at them, makes a sound like she’s putting out a fire and slinks away.
Another woman calls, “Officers, help! someone stole my heart! He’s tall dark and handsome.”
And they are, both of them. Ramirez and De La Cruz appear to take it in stride. They are committed to making a good impression, both on the reporter trailing behind them and on the society of loiterers that make their home at U.N. Plaza. This is their beat, 2 p.m. to 12 a.m.
Friends from the police academy, they walk the streets with the young enthusiasm illustrated in SFPD advertisements that are plastered inside the BART stations.
“It’s almost like the spirit of the law and the letter of the law,” Ramirez said. “Out here, a lot of what we try to use is the spirit of the law.”
“The city wants everybody to clean up. But if we go and cite every single person on the street, is there enough police officers for that?” De La Cruz chimes in. “And is it really going to help them?”
The pair waves to Dee, a middle-aged woman sitting busily on the ground surrounded by about 10 large bags.
They chat about Diane Sawyer and a documentary Dee recently saw. She zips open one of her backpacks and needles spill out.
“Sit and lie. I know,” she says. “I’m breaking sit and lie law.”
Ramirez waves his hand as if to soothe her worries, “But do you need anything from us?” he says.
“Jesus and a good lawyer,” she replies without hesitation.