What happens at a police station? Or, here’s a better question: what should happen there?
If you walked into most of the 10 district stations in San Francisco, your answer would likely be as short as you’d hope your visit would be. The station lobbies are, with some exceptions, furnished with hard surfaces, little light, and there’s often little information to peruse. The officers or cadets behind the glass information windows can be cordial and helpful, but the uninviting interiors of the San Francisco police stations got us thinking about how these spaces could help the SFPD accomplish its current undertaking to improve its relationship with the community.
Following a 2016 report by the Department of Justice that described community-police relations in San Francisco as flawed and inconsistent, the San Francisco Police Department has gone to great lengths to demonstrate a renewed commitment to residents.
Take its response on newsletters, a key venue for communicating with residents. Mission Local wrote in December that many stations failed to produce a newsletter and, even when they did, finding them or signing up for them was nearly impossible. The article pointed out how Bayview had solved the technology glitch by using MailChimp to sign up subscribers and distribute its newsletter. Already, every station has taken Bayview’s lead and moved to MailChimp. Error messages are gone, newsletters arrive. (Links for signing up are below.)
Community Engagement now has its own division, a commander, and the ear of Police Chief Bill Scott. Plans are underway to standardize and improve relations across all 10 of the department’s districts. All of them now have a monthly newsletter, and soon all will have a working community advisory board and a monthly meeting. While some stations already have all three, these will now be the minimum requirements across the city, and we will continue to update stations’ progress on meeting those requirements.
With this push to step up the police department’s community engagement game, perhaps it would be a good time to also take advantage of the buildings SFPD has, right in the midst of the communities it serves.
In fact, over the last couple of years, police departments around the country have turned to architects to help them improve their relationship with the community. Architects believe that how a space is organized has the power to change behavior, and maybe even culture.
Architect Paul Woolford, who worked on the SFPD’s new headquarters attached to the Southern District Station, said designers wanted to strike a balance between making the building open to the public, and safe.
“It is designed to protect the folks that work in the facility. They have to be safe,” Woolford says. “At the same time, you want the building to be a welcome neighbor, in terms of the urban environment.”
He points to the compound’s shared plaza, which was designed as a “secure space,” which means there are no blind spots. At the same time, it’s also inviting to passersby. The Southern Station open directly onto the plaza.
“So, as opposed to feeling like a bunker,” says Woolford, “it feels open 24 hours a day.”
Taking inspiration from the Obama-era Task Force on 21st Century Policing, firms have sought to do away with the fortress-like police stations of the past and physically facilitate some of the ideals of police reform, like transparency and community engagement. Add a door, a window or a pathway, and you can alter who populates a person’s daily landscape and from there the possibilities unfold.
But, short of tearing down San Francisco’s 10 district stations and starting over, what smaller adjustments could be made right now?
Captain Christopher Pedrini said the police department is thinking about how the stations can be spaces to involve the community. While acknowledging the limitations of stations that are more than 100 years old, he emphasized that every station is equipped with a community room, a restroom and a smaller meeting room for people who would like more privacy when speaking with officers.
He also emphasized security concerns. Every station needs to have a glass partition that protects officers from the public. But, he said, the man or woman behind the partition is there to answer questions and provide information about the station and the community.
There are some inexpensive and basic changes that might improve the experience at each station. The first might be adding chairs or benches. Few of the stations have enough places for visitors to sit. And none, except perhaps Taraval, post basic community information on bulletin boards or offer stacks of newsletters for residents to read while they wait. No station, for example, posted the day and time of its monthly community meeting.
There is also plenty of room to post answers to the questions that residents ask at nearly every monthly meeting.
Locals want to know about foot patrols: where they are taking place, and the officers walking those beats. Residents also want to know how many officers are working in a given district, and the latest crime trends. Headquarters sends a weekly crime report to each district, and a few of the district captains publish these in their newsletters, but most don’t. None post this information in their station lobby.
Residents always want to know who to call when they see someone on the street who needs help — and if they should call a different number if the situation is not an emergency.
Each district now has a community engagement liaison officer. A photo of that officer, contact information and a description of what the officer does might also be helpful. None of the stations offered this.
When the Police Commission visits a station, the captains provide a report, but the quality of these reports varies widely. The gold star goes to Captain Paul Yep at Central Station who, in his report to the Commission, answered just about every question we have heard residents ask at community meetings. A copy of that report is here.
Station to station, here is what we found. We are happy to update as more information comes in.
Mission Station, a modern brick building built in 1994, is on Valencia Street in the heart of the Mission. The lobby is clean and spacious, but slightly dark. Local newspapers sit in an alcove for people to take and, just to the right of those is a bulletin board — with no bulletins. To the left is a community room, where the now monthly meetings take place. (Under the previous captain, meetings were held every other month).
There are some fake boulders that sit near the entrance that may or may not serve as seating options. We’ve yet to see people attempt to straddle the boulders. Otherwise, few seats exist.
Filing a complaint at Mission Station may serve as a challenge if you speak a language other than English. A few station agents are bilingual, and a translation service exists, but nonprofits that work with monolingual women in the midst of domestic abuse issues complain that their clients often have to wait too long to file a complaint.
The Mission Station has public restrooms, but they are not particularly well maintained. The Mission’s new website is still under development, but you can sign up for the station’s e-mail here.
The Tenderloin police station is located on Eddy and Jones Streets, in a part of the city where 48 percent of the city’s homeless population resides. It opened in October 2001. An American flag is perched atop the outside of the building and police cars and SUVs line the streets outside.
Inside, the station is small with three chairs and no restroom. The walls are almost comically bare with a notable lack of signs that would explain anything to anyone, in any language. Citizens looking to file a complaint often wander in and look around with confusion before realizing they have made it to the right place.
One uniformed station attendant sits behind plated glass, busily typing away at a computer. The only way to communicate with an attendant is a phone system, which — as in most of San Francisco’s police stations — looks like the ones seen on television when prison inmates confer with visitors from the outside world. People seem confused at first when the station agent signals that they need to pick up the phone to speak to the agent behind the glass.
The process of filing a report at the Tenderloin Station seems to take quite a while, but the officers take the time to explain the process and hear the grievances of those filing a report. It is often noted how limited the seating is, considering the Tenderloin has the highest crime rates in the city. You can sign up for the Tenderloin station’s e-mail here. And the Tenderloin station offers a lot of news on its website.
When [dropcap]you hop off the 22 bus at Fillmore Street and Turk Avenue, you’ll see a shut-down McDonald’s in front of you and a shattered bus stop sign beside you. As you venture to the surrounding streets, you’ll start to see more houses and nice shops. But if you stick around and cross the street to approach the station, you will come upon the station’s impressive, turquoise-tiled walls.
When you reach for the doors, they do not open unless you discover a long bar on the side of the wall. Although this entry system was designed for disabled visitors, at Northern Station everyone must use it.
Inside, there are generally one or two people standing in line to report an auto crime, common in the area. The long, rectangular lobby is institutional-looking, but clean, with another set of doors on the opposite side. To a visitor’s immediate left are two bathrooms, a door to the community room for monthly meetings, and a locked entrance to the back office, which requires someone to buzz you in.
Beyond the entrance to the back office, a half-circle reception booth protrudes from the wall. There are two windows where you can speak to someone through intercoms. The posters on bulletin boards in the lobby are out of date. Posted crime reports in November 2017 were from the previous February.
The public restroom is accessible to anyone who asks for the key, and it is kept very clean. In the lobby, there are several mismatched chairs, usually filled by citizens waiting to file reports.
While there is little information in the lobby, Captain John Jaimerena did provide a fairly extensive profile of the station’s officers when the Police Commission visited in July. It was not quite as complete as Central Station’s report, but answered many of the questions about the force that residents often ask. Posting copies of the report in the lobby might be a useful way to introduce residents to the station. You can sign up for the Northern Station’s newsletter here.
[dropcap]The approach to the Southern Station on 3rd Street is squeezed between a warm, decommissioned 19th-Century brick fire station and the towering, modern headquarters of the San Francisco Police Department. The station is a two-story concrete box, and the lobby design feels like a new San Francisco development, matching its Mission Bay neighbors, but without the attempts at post-modern style — and devoid of color and design motifs.
The floor plan is small and boxy, and the interior is stark, cold and minimalist: flat surfaces and right angles of concrete, glass, and metal.
Contact with a police receptionist is separated by a thick pane of glass, several microphones and a metal slot. There is a single bench.
The Southern Station has a gender-neutral public restroom. It is is not cleaned or well maintained, which is odd, because the station connects to the San Francisco Police Headquarters. You can sign up for the Southern station’s newsletter here.
Tucked away behind a 12-foot fence and a row of armed patrollers is Park Station. The building was reopened in 1995 to reflect a Mission-style facade with stucco walls and a tiled roof. The station can be reached via Kezar Drive, which runs through Golden Gate Park, or by parking on Stanyan Street and walking down a long driveway, past a skate park where a group of teenagers can always be found.
The station is set back from the street, and is hard to find, as it has no exterior wall that faces a main street. Fences surround the building, so it appears as if it might be closed to the public. An officer inside acknowledged that around 10 people a day call to get directions to the station.
As you look around the lobby, you can see almost everything in one glance. It’s large enough to fit maybe a dozen people standing up. Then you see the large window that opens onto a second room, but no one seems to be there — until you see a set of eyes peeking over a black Dell computer monitor.
There is a blue sign with a phone on it. But when you grab the handset, it becomes clear that it has been taken off the receiver and then scotch-taped down to the top of it. To communicate with the station agent, residents must shout through the thick bullet-proof window. Station officers ease this problem by removing a piece of repurposed cardboard to uncover an opening so visitors can pass police reports or other material through to the officers.
If repetition is key to messaging, Park Station has the signs to prove it. At least two signs repeat the exact same information — one stacked right below the other.
Park Station has a single, gender-neutral restroom.
Seating is limited, and includes one bench that can seat two people comfortably, leaving visitors play musical chairs with one another while they wait.
As it is the case in nearly all the stations, there are no copies of the newsletter in the lobby, nor is there any information on community meetings or an advisory board. You can sign up for the Park Station’s newsletter here.
Given the height and width of the gray, windowless facade, one could be forgiven for thinking the Central District police station on Vallejo Street in Little Italy would have a spacious lobby. However, aside from a pair of vending machines just outside the door, few amenities are available for visitors to this SFPD station: a hand-sanitizer dispenser, a heavy-looking bin for tossing out unused medication, and a hard flat bench underneath a bulletin board of police promotional materials.
The lobby is frequently devoid of Chinatown, North Beach and Financial District constituents — perhaps the bedroom-sized space prevents lingering. There is, at least, a phone by the thick glass window at the counter that police say facilitates communication in nearly any language. There is no restroom for the public.
The station’s new commanding officer, Capt. Paul Yep, has lots of new ideas for community policing, and he has produced — by far — the most complete, most transparent profile of any San Francisco police station; it’s available here. It could also be posted in the lobby. The Central Station’s website is here. You can sign up for the Central station’s newsletter here.
Changing with the tides of gentrification in Ocean View and Balboa Park, the renovated Ingleside Station hides within a lush green park.
One often sees Ingleside officers laughing (and sometimes holding large shotguns) at the entrance to the station, which states, “Police Business Only.” People often seem unsure whether they are allowed inside. The outside is surrounded by police cars and looks like a movie studio. It opens up to the back end of Balboa Park.
The station is a beautiful old Spanish-style stucco building, with big, arched doorways and a terra cotta-tiled roof. Off the right side of the building, there is a newer, one-story annex which houses the “community room,” used for public and police meetings.
The lobby is small, with a single bench for visitors. The station was festively decorated for Halloween last October, and felt significantly more inviting than many other police stations.
There is no restroom in the police station. Instead, it shares a restroom with Balboa Park. In fact, there is more seating in the restroom than in the station. Ironically, the men’s restroom has “fuck the police” graffitied onto the mirror. You can sign up for the Ingleside station’s newsletter here.
A little over a half-mile away from the commercial and community heart of the Bayview police district is its station, a sleek-looking structure that towers at the corner of a quiet, residential neighborhood.
Sitting behind a large glass window, the female officer at the front desk keeps watch over the light-filled lobby. Built in 1997, the airy, modern room is circular. At its center is a round bench with a totem structure jutting up from its center, spiking towards the octagonal skylight.
There is occasional noise as the door, which connects the lobby to the main building, swings open and the distant chatter of officers — working on reports, catching up with each other — spills into the foyer.
There is no line to file reports, but the woman at the front desk maintains one in her head. She doesn’t say ‘hi;’ she will summon you in the order of your arrival. You speak to her using a telephone to the right of her window.
The station has a single, gender-neutral restroom that is accessible to the public. The key is at the front desk for people to grab whenever they need.
Residents often raise concerns that there are not enough bilingual Spanish-speaking officers at the station, and it hinders their ability to report crimes. You can sign up for the Bayview station’s newsletter here.
Richmond Station is small, contained and — in the winter — decorated with a Christmas wreath and a few other ornaments. There are two chairs by a small desk, where residents can fill out reports and check out police swag for sale in a glass case. The SFPD hats, which go for $20 a pop, sport both Warriors and the 49ers logos. A rack holds the Richmond Review and forms for reports. A full vending machine offers snacks.
There is a bathroom, but little information is posted on the station’s walls — including no information on the station’s community meetings, community advisory board or community liaison officer. You can sign up for Richmond station’s newsletter here.
The Taraval station was once a library, and it has the comfortable feel of a reading room. There is a small table with chairs on either side, where residents can file reports, and there is a line of four chairs where people can wait comfortably. There are also several racks filled with forms, the local newspaper and information about filing reports. A bulletin board is filled with notices, including one warning against a scam targeting the Asian community. It also has a helpful map of the city and Muni stops, and some postings from residents about lost pets.
There’s also a notice about the Mobile Crisis Team, how it works and phone numbers to call. Flyers advertise how to get involved in different community-engagement projects, including the Police Activities League.
In addition, there is information on free gun locks and Megan’s Law.
It’s not a perfect example of the information that might be helpful to residents, but it offers some material to engage with, and the person behind the glass partition seemed ready to help and answer questions. Moreover, the Taraval station has one of the easiest-to-use websites, and it is the only station that informs residents about its community advisory board and offers short profiles of those board members.
You can sign up for the Taraval station’s newsletter here.