Police officers cordon off the area
Police officers cordon off the intersection of Mission and 21st, August 5, 2022. Photo by Yujie Zhou

A Board of Supervisors resolution that would allow the San Francisco Police Department to enter into an agreement with a production company to produce a documentary series, “Real Streets of San Francisco,” on the “day-to-day challenges and opportunities of 21st century policing,” was introduced last month by Supervisor Matt Dorsey, District 6 Supervisor and former SFPD communications director. 

“I’m a believer in transparency for the sake of transparency,” said Dorsey, in an interview with Mission Local today. “You know what I mean; it’s like, the PR headaches are the reasons that we have to get better.”

Critics, on the other hand, thought this would be a terrible idea. “I was a cop for 32 years. It is a challenging job, but it’s just a job. The police department — and Matt Dorsey is sort of a police apologist — they try to glorify what it’s all about,” said Carl Tennenbaum, a former SFPD sergeant. “When I worked there, especially under Chief Heather Fong, the TV show “Cops” wanted to film in San Francisco. And, back then, we had a policy that we didn’t allow outside agencies to come in. There’s no point.”

An excerpt from the resolution.

Added Yoel Haile, the criminal justice program director for the ACLU of Northern California, “This proposal is unprofessional and disrespectful. The very real problems with policing and poverty in San Francisco should not be fodder for reality TV. It’s unsettling when the officials we rely on to oversee the police instead act as their PR agents.” 

The resolution was introduced on Nov. 15, and is currently pending actions from the Budget and Finance Committee. It’s been put on a 30-day hold, and the exact timeline is unclear, according to Dorsey. 

The legislation does not require the city to allocate money to the documentary. “There’s no city funding,” Dorsey stressed. “I can’t even imagine a scenario where I would support the city funding an independent documentary.”

Another excerpt from the resolution
Supervisor Matt Dorsey, seen here in his prior role as SFPD spokesman

Should the board approve, Los Angeles-based media company Topspin Content will get approval to produce its SFPD documentary. Topspin is an “accomplished team of Emmy Award and Academy Award winning veteran writers, producers and on-air talent who are extensively well versed in successful projects,” according to the resolution. Some of the subjects Topspin have covered include “the 2018 Parkland, Fla. high school shooting,” “the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the New York City Police Department”; and, “Dr. Anthony Fauci’s work as President Biden’s Chief Medical Advisor on COVID-19.”

Topspin co-founder Eddie Barbini’s bio on the company website notes that he directed “five movies for the CIA.”  

As of now, none of the supervisors, other than Dorsey, has taken a position on the legislation. But Dorsey notes that “My understanding, from the chief of police, is that he is on board with this. And I know that the mayor’s office is aware of it, as well.”

Retired cop Tennenbaum, however, remains skeptical. “There’s an old saying, ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch,’” he said. Tennenbaum believes that, even if the project does not take money directly from the city, it is a distraction and a waste of police resources. “It’s not the city’s job, like it’s not the police department’s job, to put a positive spin on what they’re doing, because the premise here is that it’s saying, the challenges of policing in San Francisco are the challenges of policing in America. Maybe they should put the resources into fixing these challenges, as opposed to doing a documentary.”

The proposed SFPD documentary’s title appears to be an unsubtle play on the 1970s Quinn Martin production “The Streets of San Francisco.'”

Dorsey stressed that there are precedents for documentaries being made in public entities of San Francisco, including films made during the legal battle to establish same-sex marriage. “Candidly, I was surprised that they would require authorization. My view of this is, if somebody wants to come and do a documentary on a public entity in San Francisco, if we are committed to transparency, I would be surprised that we would ever say no.” 

Dorsey claims the documentary will be a factual record of everything good and bad, “warts and all.”

The language of the resolution, however, doesn’t appear to countenance much in the way of warts: It notes that the documentary series “holds enormous potential value” for San Francisco in “aiding recruitment” to the SFPD; it could help “attract the best and brightest recruits interested in becoming tomorrow’s SFPD members.”

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REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

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  1. Ridiculous idea but if it must go forward, episode one should cover this Mission Local article:

    SFPD blasted for failing to properly report alleged officer misconduct

  2. Please just have them hang out in the 911 room so they can document how the calls are handled. Like when you call the cops because you are witnessing and crime and they want to fill out the form before they pass your emergency to a dispatcher. They have to detail how the perf looks and what they are wearing and whether or not a life is in danger and then they may send someone if they deem a life is in danger. No guarantee.

  3. Thank you Ms. Zhou for your reporting. So it appears that Supervisor Dorsey still works for the San Francisco Police Department. Had he wanted to be a documentary filmmaker, perhaps he should have declined Mayor Breed’s appointment.

  4. Oh right, so Dorsey seems to think he’ll get a pink shades docu featuring SFPD cops getting cheered walking at Gay Pride parade and the like. Let me suggest he ask the Oakland PD how much interested they’d be in a making a sequel to “The Force”.