Back to the Future: New SF Mission Station captain’s crime strategies

Mission Station Captain Gaetano Caltagirone talking with residents before a meeting at the Eureka Valley Recreation Center. Photo by Kaitlin Benz

It’s hard to be more San Francisco Italian than young Gaetano Caltagirone and his partner, Matt Fambrini, walking the foot beat in North Beach.

Caltagirone, now the nascent captain at Mission Station smiles at the memory. “It was so nice walking that beat, you know?” says the 50-year-old Sacred Heart grad. “Growing up in the area and being Italian and being in the Italian part of North Beach, people would say ‘Oh, Gaetano, we remember you as a small boy and now you’re a policeman and helping us.’ It was so nice to have that.” He pauses. “You become vested. You know?”  

The captain is looking for cops who know. That’s why, when it came to getting officers to, literally, follow in his footsteps as a beat officer, he opened up the assignment to volunteers. On Dec. 2, he finalized what he calls “my pilot program,” assigning eight officers onto two beats, covering Upper Castro and Noe Valley for around 18 hours a day by foot and/or bicycle. He’ll fill in the rest of the Mission — the district is a lot bigger than its name implies — as personnel make themselves available.

Foot beats are not cutting-edge policing. It’s about as far from cutting-edge as you can get; it harks back to the earliest days of police and feet. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A beat cop can know every merchant, criminal, gang member or drunk in a neighborhood. They can know when a garage door is open when it shouldn’t be. They can know it’s odd that a guy is standing on one side of the street rather than another. They can know who’s on probation or whose brother is on probation; in 2017, they can even have a gallery of photographs of the usual suspects at the ready on their smartphone. Walking beats is often a punishment for cops in other cities, but it needn’t be in San Francisco; this place is small and water won’t freeze here.

Your humble narrator on Dec. 4 sat down with Caltagirone for an hour-and-a-half discussion. He lived up to the billing he’d received from more than half a dozen department veterans with more than 200 years of cumulative SFPD experience that we’d spoken with earlier: “a hard worker;” “in his heart a good person who wants to do well;” “a fair guy who won’t blow smoke up your ass.”

He is also, as you’d expect from his pedigree and the words his Tenderloin station colleagues had engraved on his billyclub — “The Godfather” — very “old school.” Again and again, Caltagirone’s approach to solving problems of today were to employ the tactics of yesteryear, when neighbors knew one another and looked out for one another and young local boys grew up to be beat cops like Gaetano Caltagirone and came back to help everyone.

This is, again, not necessarily a bad thing. Walking foot beats in a geographically intimate city with distinct neighborhoods might be a spectacularly intuitive move — and yet, Caltagirone’s immediate predecessors and the SFPD writ large somehow forgot to do it. Six years ago, there were notably more defined Mission foot beats and cops on foot or bike than there are now after Caltagirone initiated his “pilot.” In practice, however, foot beats turn out to be like exercise: It’s something you know you need to do and know is a good idea — but you let it slide. 

When an organization and a city needlessly ignores tried-and-true solutions, grasping for traditional remedies is far from a reactionary move. But San Francisco, and the Mission, are dealing with problems the old-school Italians who watched Caltagirone growing up couldn’t have likely comprehended.

Whether looking to the past for solutions is viable in the present will be determined in the future.

A retired Mission Station cop who worked under 15 or so captains and, by the end of his tenure there, was training other officers, offers a succinct recipe for how to succeed in the post: “70 percent of it is looking someone in the eye, nodding your head, acknowledging there’s a problem and not lying to them about how the 2000 block of Mission is going to be an Earthly paradise in 72 hours.”

Whether talking to meth-addled homeless people, concerned citizens or fellow cops, the retired officer told us the most important thing to do is “pay attention. Sit and listen. Give people two or three minutes to calm down. The thing that gets you nowhere is, after 20 seconds, saying ‘there’s not much we can do.'” Even if there’s not much we can do. Caltagirone gets this. He comes off as wanting to listen and help because he’s a good listener — and he really does want to help. Even if there’s not much he can do.

To wit, Caltagirone has been told by merchants and residents that the district’s most pressing problems are car break-ins and prostitution — but he knew this going into the job. He also knew 16th Street plaza is a mess and prostitutes frequent Capp Street. Are these containment zones? Is this acceptable? “You cannot say it’s acceptable,” he offers. But that’s what dozens of captains have thought, and the plaza is still fetid and prostitutes are still on the corners. None of these captains had a lasting solution and Caltagirone admits he and his cadre of lieutenants and sergeants are still working on ideas (he does add that any plan is going to aim to bust the pimps, not the prostitutes, the same way he’d like to nail drug dealers, not drug users).

Caltagirone is also still in the inchoate stage of formulating solutions for the district’s scourge of car break-ins. He’d like to get more undercover officers onto the streets — his predecessor Dan Perea largely gutted these units — but he doesn’t have the manpower yet. In the meantime, the solutions he offers for quelling both car break-ins and prostitution are prophylactic: better lighting and better-trimmed shrubberies. Perea is now Caltagirone’s direct commander, but the captain claims this isn’t awkward at all; “he has great input.”

That may not be what Caltagirone’s immediate predecessor, Captain Bill Griffin, would say. Griffin was yanked from his Mission Station captaincy after only seven months. Caltagirone says he’s in regular contact with Perea and Deputy Chief Mike Redmond — “I have not been thrown to the wolves.” But he says he has neither sought nor been given any clarification on just what the hell got Griffin dismissed like Billy Martin being unceremoniously fired by George Steinbrenner, nor what he needs to do to avoid a similar fate.

Old-school policing has its charms, but accurate record-keeping and reacting accordingly to quality statistics isn’t one of them. Especially in this city. This has resulted in inconsistent approaches to the same problems. Chief George Gascón decentralized auto burglary, robbery, and other units and rendered them the domain of individual stations. Chief Greg Suhr centralized an auto burglary detail. But Chief Bill Scott decentralized the auto burglary task force — while centralizing the burglary and robbery details. What’s the logic in that? Caltagirone offers that rings of robbers or burglars could operate citywide. But couldn’t rings of auto burglars do the same? Yes, he admits, they could. The city’s strategy, it seems, is focused more on opportunistic smash-and-grabs than making cases against professional car thievery rings who, knowingly, use the city’s balkanized enforcement procedures against it.

Solving this problem is beyond the reach of any one person, no matter how many shrubberies are trimmed.

Gaetano Caltagirone won’t be outworked. He wants to solve problems not by arresting every last person in sight but by addressing root causes. If that’s at all possible by employing tried-and-true policing procedures, then it’s probably gonna happen. If it’s not, then it remains to be seen what will come to pass.

By the way, “The Godfather,” the term carved into Caltagirone’s billy club, isn’t a reference to the movie. It’s something the men and women he led saw fit to call him; he was the guy who’d listen to their problems and let them vent. Just like his godfather, Uncle Claudio, used to do.

That’s Caltagirone’s way. So far, it’s worked. He’s old-school. He’s vested. You know?

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3 Comments

  1. Maria & Claudio Angeli

    dear Gaetano what I read is totalmente tu. Sei molto onesto e sincerio, queste qualita’ non sono di tutti, you’re very special.

  2. Perceptor

    “…he opened up the assignment to volunteers. On Dec. 2, he finalized what he calls “my pilot program,” assigning eight officers onto two beats, covering Upper Castro and Noe Valley for around 18 hours a day by foot and/or bicycle. He’ll fill in the rest of the Mission — the district is a lot bigger than its name implies — as personnel make themselves available.”

    On one hand, kudos for starting beat patrols. Change of any kind is hard, and the new captain deserves credit for it.

    On the other hand, by making beat patrols on a volunteer-basis, is it a surprise at all that the first beats are going to be Upper Castro and Noe Valley? Anybody object if I volunteer to fight the crime wave at 24th and Noe?

    On the surface, this is a little bit reminiscent of Joe’s previous article, where patrols were noticed taking out-of-way routes to avoid service calls on high-activity streets. The fact that the Castro beat is defined as “Upper” Castro, specifically avoiding hot spots like Jane Warner Plaza, seems like cherry picking for easier duty. If 16th and Mission is waiting for officer volunteers for beat patrols, they’re going to be waiting forever.

    Another good article, Joe!

  3. Kim

    I also would like to know why Noe Valley and Upper Castro was chosen first? I would bet these are not the highest crime areas, that could use this presence now.

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