When Wayne H. returned to his residence at the Mission Hotel Wednesday afternoon, he noticed about 15 cops gathered in the lobby.
“Did someone get busted?” he wondered. “Is someone going to jail?”
No, Wayne soon learned: Actually, the swarm of officers had brought coffee and donuts, and had come only to introduce themselves to residents of the SRO on the corner of 16th and South Van Ness that has gained a reputation for nuisances and police activity.
So Wayne, encouraged by his fellow residents, grabbed some coffee and struck up a conversation with one of the officers. “It blew my mind,” he said afterward.
“Coffee with a cop” has become a common sight around San Francisco and in other cities, but often the events take place in leafy-green neighborhood cafes and rarely — if ever — are they hosted at SROs.
This event, a “meet-and-greet” with Mission police Captain Gaetano Caltagirone and more than a dozen of his officers, is the first time SFPD officers have participated in a community-building event at the SRO. It was organized by Mervyn Greene, a tenant organizer at Mission Hotel and a member of the Central City SRO Collaborative.
Greene said that after regularly attending the monthly community meeting at the Mission Police Station, he only saw residents from more well-off parts of the neighborhood, like homeowners in Fair Oaks and in the Central Mission area. The “non-homeowners, the non-condo owners” from the SROs were not represented, he said.
“I felt like we were being treated as part of the problem, as opposed to as part of the community,” Greene said.
Greene, an energetic man with a greying beard and one of the Mission Hotel’s go-to people for resident concerns, estimates that some 400 residents live in the neighborhood’s three main SROs — the All-Star, the Royan and the Mission Hotel. “I’ve seen police come in here and I just say ‘hi’, but they’re on guard because they’re on duty,” Greene said. “And I wanted to make it so they could see that there are 180 people living in this building who are just normal, nice people.”
“It was a way of humanizing both sides of it,” Greene continued.
So, for more than half a year, Greene has been lobbying higher-ups at the Mission Police Station to come and meet the Mission Hotel residents.
Finally, this week, they came.
The event looked less like coffee with a cop and more like a homecoming dance — with both sides, cops and residents, reluctant to break the ice and chat with one another. The officers and residents who mustered up the courage to walk to the other side simply talked about the neighborhood and how the officers conduct their work.
Of course, like everyone else, inhabitants of the SRO are concerned about their safety.
Carlos Ortega, a resident at the hotel, said he was recently mugged. He said, while he appreciated how the cops handled the situation, he has not seen enough police presence in the area during later hours.
“I don’t feel completely safe, because I don’t see them around,” Ortega said. “At least for us, living from here it seems like they’re not here a lot. Otherwise we don’t see them around [patrolling near the hotel].”
“It seems like they’re in their castle, if you will — and they don’t come out like this very much,” he continued. “This is great, that they’re here.”
Carla Thompson, wearing a flowery nightgown, and Chukke Johns, sporting his trucker hat, were among those sitting back and taking in the scene, eating donuts and drinking coffee. Although they were not fully engaging with the officers, they were nonetheless impressed and comforted by their presence.
“This is the best experience I’ve ever had with the police,” Thompson, a five-year resident at the hotel, said. “They didn’t come in with their rifles, running up the stairs, to apprehend someone that has killed someone in the building.”
It was the first time, too, Thompson has seen a captain “reach out and bring donuts, just to say ‘hello’ to the community.”
Johns said, more than anything else, the event was a good example of “crime prevention.”
“It’s a lot harder to commit a crime against someone you know, or shoot people down that you know,” he said. Usually, he said, “there’s a big Us and Them out on the streets.”
Officer Ruben Rhodes, a bike cop who patrols the 16th Street BART Plaza, agreed. “It builds a little more trust on both sides,” he said. “People don’t always get the option to talk to us because we’re on-call or busy, so seeing us in this capacity so they see ‘Oh, you’re just a person like me, except you’re wearing a uniform and a badge.’”
After the gathering, Caltagirone offered to host a future community meeting at the Mission Hotel, as some of the resident cannot always make it to meetings at the station. Asked why it’s important to come into the community they protect, instead of the other way around, the captain said, “To show we care — we’re all human.”
But Greene, the organizer of the event, said his efforts to build trust between the hotel’s residents and the cops is far from over — and he cannot do it alone. “This is just a first step,” he said. “Nothing changes immediately after one step.”
“The police are going to talk about themselves and say, ‘We were over there and nobody pulled a knife on us,’ and we’re going to talk about it and say, ‘Nobody beat anybody or shot anybody,’” he added.
“It’s the beginning of a relationship,” he said, “and I think it could be a pretty healthy relationship.”