Posts Tagged ‘San Francisco Police Department’


Last week, I wrote about a San Francisco police officer named Morgan (not the officer’s real name). Morgan’s observations were too numerous and important to share in a single post. Here in part two, Morgan relates challenges with which police deal every day. This may shed a new light on the childhood game of cops and robbers.

Any workday can present police with life-threatening danger. Once, Morgan and a partner chased two homicide suspects. The suspects were shooting at them. Real guns. Real bullets. “Most people run from danger,” Morgan says. “Police run towards it.” What was Morgan thinking? “We need to get these people.” Morgan is thankful for never having had to fire a weapon. Still, when an officer fires in a dangerous situation, says Morgan, people complain. They say the officer didn’t need to shoot or should have shot the suspect in the leg or hand. “They want to know why we can’t do what they do on TV. Reality is, we’re trained to shoot to stop the threat.” An officer who doesn’t is likely to be killed.

The media, according to Morgan, goes for the sensational. TV dramas and movies distort images of police. “They play up corruption, criminal activity, killing people. Unless you ride along with police officers, you can’t understand the actions we take, why we do what we do.” Morgan doesn’t watch much TV

San Francisco is a tough place to be a cop. “We’re sometimes called to be the touchy-feely police.” SFPD officers are taught to call people sir and ma’am, to be respectful and polite. While officers can escalate a number of levels of physical force, “The majority uses a great deal of restraint. We first try verbal persuasion.”

The Office of Citizen Complaints makes police wary. Some complaints are deserved. Many aren’t. A complaint was filed when Morgan issued a parking ticket right after 9/11 as if parking in a red zone should have been allowed as America sorted out grief and confusion. Morgan has faced more serious accusations, none true. “People can accuse an officer of anything. A drunk guy accused me of stealing his jewelry and calling him names. My partner and I had to tackle him and take him to jail. Actually, he was calling us names.”

People can skew a scene to their own perceptions. “I’ve been in situations that people are yelling that I’m hurting the person I’m trying to arrest, but they don’t know the whole story, what the person did, what led up to my action.” Complaints may be dismissed, but they still stay in an officer’s file.

Stress is high and ongoing. Morgan believes that the majority of police officers everywhere suffer from PTSD. “It’s like going to war every day. It’s traumatizing.” Unfortunately, few police can find a home in San Francisco. Police are well paid, but Morgan believes San Francisco to be “absolutely not affordable.”

Still, Morgan loves police work. “This is the best job I’ve ever had. I love the excitement. Every day is different. As a patrol officer, I have a lot of freedom. I enjoy that.”

There are many Morgans out there answering our calls when we need them. That’s worth thinking about.

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Protests continue against police killing unarmed black men. Now we’re faced with the murders of police officers—two in Brooklyn and one in Tarpon Springs, Florida. We hear a lot about those killed by police. And we should. But what is it like to be a police officer? I spoke with a member of the San Francisco Police Department.

I’ll call the officer Morgan. The officer can speak more freely if anonymous. Why did Morgan become a police officer in the first place? Morgan’s life had a strong moral/ethical base, so police work seemed a good fit. There are bad people out there. This wasn’t a whim. Morgan had a good bit of life experience before joining the force, unlike young officers going into police work out of college. That was an advantage. Young people find the pay and benefits a big draw. However, Morgan says, “They soon realize that this is scary stuff and they’re not emotionally or even socially equipped to deal with the stress, deal with strangers, take command of a difficult situation.”

Morgan’s career started at the police academy. “Everything is staged and thus safe,” says Morgan. “If you make a mistake, you don’t get physically harmed. On the street, any mistake can be your last.” Sixteen weeks with three different training officers followed. There’s a huge learning curve. “The goal is to make mistakes early so that you learn from them.”

Is there a police mentality? Morgan jokes about putting on the uniform and a little switch turning on. “I become hyper-aware of my surroundings.” The most dangerous situations? Traffic stops. Depending on the time of day and location, Morgan doesn’t know who or what the driver and/or passengers might be. Morgan makes sure the vehicle stops just where Morgan wants it. Then Morgan checks the back seat. If the vehicle holds more than one person, Morgan calls for backup to maintain focus on the driver and write out the ticket. “I’ve had some difficult encounters,” says Morgan. “People refuse to sign the ticket, want to argue. By California law, if you refuse to sign you’re placed under arrest. When they sign, they’re free to go.”

Morgan has never used a weapon but has drawn a weapon countless times. “We’re trained to pull out weapons in building searches, searching for suspects and felony car stops.” Morgan has arrested many violent people. Morgan always calls for backup first. “Luckily in San Francisco, officers are seconds away.” Morgan wants to get that person in handcuffs and under control quickly. Suspects don’t always cooperate. Some “turtle up,” tucking their arms into their bodies and becoming rigid. “Some run and have to be chased down.” Morgan notes that here male officers use force more than female officers, who try to talk people into handcuffs.

Morgan occasionally runs into hostility from bystanders. Some may have a history with law enforcement. Events in Ferguson and other cities haven’t been helpful. “People don’t see the person but the uniform.” Policing can be a thankless job. “People love fire fighters but hate police, because we’re people’s conscience. We also see people at their worst.”

What roles do danger and stress play in a police officer’s life? Morgan reveals that next week.

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Last Saturday, a ruckus took place on Fillmore Street. Emerging from a café with friends, I heard screaming on the east side of Fillmore near California. Crossing the street, I saw two or three police officers attempting to restrain a young man. He was black.

The man was on the ground screaming and cursing. He directed his invectives, mostly to the tune of “fuck you,” not only at the police but also at bystanders, several taking videos, perhaps as a restraint against police overreaction. After several minutes, the police—as many as eight had gathered—cuffed the man. Then they placed him in a patrol car. No weapon was brandished, no baton wielded, no chokehold applied.

As I heard it, the man had entered the nearby Wells Fargo Bank screaming. Such behavior tends to frighten employees and customers. Was he mentally disturbed? Off his meds? Did he have a knife or gun? I don’t know. I’m sure no one in the bank did either when he entered and went off. The security guard called the police. The man left and was identified to police answering the call. I only know how he reacted. And how I’ve reacted in the past.

Police have stopped me twice. The first time, a New York State highway patrolman pulled over several fraternity brothers and me as we drove back to college after spring vacation. We weren’t speeding. He checked the trunk. For alcohol? Drugs? I have no idea. The search may well have been illegal. Motivated by what? Beats me. He was less than pleasant and not at all apologetic when he let us continue on our way. If any of us were black, might there have been a violent confrontation? I can’t say. State trooper stops four Jewish guys? You never know. But none of us was about to provide him an opportunity to escalate the stop into an arrest or worse.

The second time, I was living in San Antonio. I went out for a late-night walk. A policeman stopped his patrol car and asked for my identification. Yes, people have a right to walk in their own neighborhood. Or someone else’s for that matter. But I wasn’t concerned with protesting a violation of my rights. You have to realize that Texans generally refuse to walk as much as a block to get beer at the corner 7-Eleven. That’s why God gave mankind the pickup truck. The policeman saw something unusual. He investigated. He was polite the whole time. Of course, I’m not black. That could have been another story. Or not. After verifying that I was a local resident, he said thank you and left. Now consider this: I’m glad he stopped me. He was keeping my neighborhood safe.

So yes, we know some police have used weapons or deadly force too quickly. That’s wrong. And no, my appearance doesn’t attract a lot of attention. But police have a job to do, including apprehending those who disturb the peace and keeping an eye on neighborhoods. It’s critical that they do it the right way. It’s also critical that we recognize the difficult and often dangerous nature of police work.

Not every ruckus should turn into a disaster. Then again, not every ruckus should happen in the first place.

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