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June 11, 2007
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The Badge — San Francisco officer tackles homeless beat

The relationship between the media and law enforcement is often adversarial. Reporters appear to seek the sensational elements of a crime story, often to the detriment of the police, and officers tend to be uncooperative with journalists they seem to instinctively mistrust.

Not so with “The Badge,” a new series presented by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter/photographer team embedded with the SFPD. Kudos to the Chronicle for pursuing this series and to the officers who willingly put themselves in the media spotlight in the hopes of helping civilians develop a better understanding of life behind the badge. You’re putting a human face on “the police,” which will benefit us all.

 Read the full "Badge" series


By John Koopman
San Francisco Chronicle

Officer Priscilla Espinoza is driving down 18th Street when she spots the shopping carts. There are two, parked at a 45-degree angle beneath green leafy trees near Dolores. Not the location you'd expect to see a homeless encampment.

She slows and stops and spots a man lying on a filthy thin futon. She recognizes him instantly.

"This could be trouble," she says. "You never know how he's going to react. He can be very aggressive."

Espinoza approaches carefully. "Hey. How you doing? You awake?" she says.

The man, a big, rangy redhead with a thick cluster of rings in his ear, rises on one elbow and sizes up the petite intruder.

"What do you want?" he asks.

"I just wanted to see how you're doing," she says. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

It's not exactly what people on the street are used to hearing from officers of the law. Usually, it's more along the lines of, "Get up! Move along."

Not Espinoza. The homeless are her beat. Every working day, she and her partner, Officer Michael Diskins, patrol the streets of the Mission District, Noe Valley and the Castro looking for homeless people and trying to get them off the street.

They work out of the San Francisco Police Department's Mission Station, but homeless outreach officers are assigned throughout the neighborhood stations of the city. The premise is that homeless people commit a disproportionate amount of crime and contribute to all manner of problems for people living and working nearby. The cops work with social workers and other agencies to find shelter or medical assistance for people living on the street.

Finding customers is not difficult.

Espinoza and Diskins start their day at 6 a.m. Diskins is testifying in a homicide trial on this particular day, so Espinoza drives the streets alone. Backup is a radio call away, but considering the volatile and unpredictable nature of her constituents, this can be a high-risk job. Which is one of the reasons social services leaves it to the cops to make first contact.

Espinoza has seen a fair share of dangerous situations in the two years she's done the job. The first time was when she was sent to check out a homeless man's tent. The tent flap was closed. As Espinoza came near, a pit bull charged out of the tent, right at her.

"I was new, so I didn't think I needed my pistol in hand," she said. "I was lucky the dog was on a leash."

Another time, she was alone and had to deal with a man who became combative. The guy was 6 foot 5 and huge. She had the cuffs on one wrist when the man turned and started fighting with her, threatening to kill her. Somehow, she got the cuffs on the man before he could get free to hit her.

None of that dissuades her from the job.

She drives through the Mission and swings past the park around 25th and Harrison streets. This is a different clientele because of the Latino immigrants. Those who are here illegally have no options for help. They can't get into a shelter, and they can't get welfare. They live in squalor and are often victims of crimes.

About once a month, she said, one of them dies or is killed on the street. They seldom have identification, and anyone they called "friend" is gone because the police are on their way.

"They die alone," Espinoza said.

The most difficult part is accepting the limitations of what she is able to accomplish. A homicide inspector can close a case. A patrol cop can make a felony arrest. For Espinoza, a "success" is measured by much smaller steps. Just getting a homeless man off the street and into a shelter, or a room in a hotel, is a major accomplishment. It's not about turning lives completely around. That's almost too much to ask.

She tells the story of Vina, a homeless woman who lost her leg when her boyfriend blew it off with a shotgun. Vina was a well-known panhandler who lived in an encampment around 13th and South Van Ness. She had a warrant out of Oregon, so couldn't get help from social services. She just lived on the street and for a long time, Espinoza said, she seemed to get smaller and smaller, like she was disintegrating.

"I finally tapped into something after about a year of dealing with her," she said. "Someone had stolen the crutches from one of her friends and I got him some new crutches. That changed Vina, somehow. She started to trust me."

With the help of two other officers and a social worker, the warrant in Oregon went away. Vina got on a methadone program for her drug addiction. Then she got a room and some financial help.

"She's still out there, but she's in a much better place," Espinoza said.

And there are the failures. Like the old man, Boznikov. Vodka was his drug of choice, and he hung around the 24th Street corridor. Merchants and residents called the cops regularly because he would drink and pass out on the sidewalk, often with his clothing half gone.

"We transported him numerous times to the drunk tank," she said. "We tried everything for him, but we just couldn't reach him. He was too sick to help. He really needed treatment for alcoholism."

One day, a call came in regarding a dead body in that neighborhood. Espinoza recalls talking to her partner, and both wondering if it were Boznikov.

It was.

They found him in the gutter with blood pouring from his mouth. He'd apparently died of severe cirrhosis.

"That's so sad," she said. "He just gave up."

Espinoza counts her visit to the homeless guy on 18th Street as a small victory.

Every other contact with the man, whose first name is Sean, has led nowhere. He's a heroin addict and is usually high when she sees him. He's usually jittery and combative.

Worse, he has a warrant out for his arrest on a burglary charge. Social services won't place anyone in a room if they have warrants. And discharging a warrant is difficult, especially if the person in question is homeless and not inclined to help himself. They're usually required to stay off drugs and live clean, and that can be too much for them to handle.

But Sean is not high this morning. He's lucid. His hands are calm.

"I want to do something about this warrant, but you're going to have to help me," she tells Sean. "Are you willing to go on methadone?"

"I want help," he says. "I'll try anything, but I don't want to go on methadone. I don't want to get hooked on that. I don't want to be hooked on anything."

Espinoza calls social services and leaves a message for a case worker. She's smiling. Sean took a step. It was a small step, but it was a step.

Read The Badge blog

Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle

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Full story: The Badge — San Francisco officer tackles homeless beat






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