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April 29, 2007
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The Badge — Cops make decisions that affect people's lives

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 Pete Shields grabs his keys and his gear bag. He gets behind the wheel of a patrol car. He logs in to the mobile data terminal - which looks like a laptop mounted on the center console - and heads out.

Today's a good day for Shields: No pain. He gets headaches most days. Once in a while, they blossom into full-blown migraines, and he has to take the day off. The pain is a remnant of the time he got clocked in the skull during a protest against globalization. He spent a year on disability.

Now, he's back at work at Mission Station, working the swing shift with a dozen or so other cops. When Shields and the other officers walk into the building on Valencia Street, they pass by the photo of Jon Cook, a Mission Station officer killed in the line of duty a couple of years ago. When they walk out the back, to where the squad cars are parked, they pass by the wanted posters -- the "armed and dangerous" men who have killed, raped, molested kids and set fires.

Today, for Shields, there will be no shooting or high-speed chases. No felony arrests. That's not always what cop work is about. Just about every day, cops make decisions that affect people's lives, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Today, Shields will make a decision that will affect the life of a newborn baby boy.

Shields' partner is off, so he drives a patrol car by himself. The sergeant has reminded the other officers to be prepared to come running if Shields has any trouble.

The in-car computer has been oddly quiet for some time, and the big excitement comes from providing crowd control on 22nd Street near Mission while an ambulance crew tends to a semiconscious man. The guy had a broken leg and pain medication, which he apparently mixed with cheap beer. The man is barely conscious and moans pitifully when he slides to the ground.

"Sometimes, we're just secretaries with guns," Shields says as he pulls away from the scene.

Shields is 38. He's been with the department since 2000. He grew up in Colorado and Santa Cruz, got a criminal justice degree from San Jose State University and planned to become a lawyer. But the criminal justice classes made cop work seem a lot more fun. So he applied to the SFPD.

Now, he can't imagine doing anything else.

Shields is of medium build and soft-spoken. He lives in San Francisco and calls himself a "foodie." That's one of the reasons he likes working the Mission. He likes the restaurants and food shops. He knows which coffee shop makes a Spanish "cortado."

He has a Scooby-Doo sticker on the butt of his semiautomatic pistol.

"I like the whole community policing thing," Shields says. "I like walking around, talking to people and trying to help them. Every day is different."

Moments later, the computer screen shows a call for service at San Francisco General Hospital. It concerns Child Protective Services.

Shields heads over to the hospital. Rolling down Potrero, he says CPS workers sometimes have a problem with families of newborns. If they suspect the child might be in danger, they can ask the police to stop by and sign a form that allows them to keep the baby at the hospital until they can perform a home inspection and interview the mother, father, whoever lives there.

Shields tries not to think about it. This is just an administrative chore for him. On its face, anyway. It's tough when kids are involved.

He learned that lesson some years back, when he spent an entire shift caring for an 8-year-old who had gotten lost in the city. He bonded with her over a Happy Meal. When his shift ended, she was disconsolate. The situation eventually had a happy ending, but Shields realized he couldn't get attached.

"You have to build up a wall inside you," he says, "so it can't affect you."

Shields makes his way to the sixth floor at General.

A social worker meets Shields at the door to neonatal care. She guides him to a desk in the middle of the room where another caseworker is waiting. The room is yellow and white, crammed with fetal monitors, cribs, computers and stacks of files. Shields, in his dark-blue uniform and thick leather gun belt, stands out like a linebacker in a dollhouse.

The two social workers tell the story: A very pregnant woman came to the hospital the day before and demanded to have labor induced. She said she was suicidal and didn't want the kid.

The new mother was young and obese. The caseworkers knew that, her name and address, and very little else.

Shields looks over the paperwork, asks about the mother and her newborn. It's a boy, happy and healthy. So far. The police officer has to decide whether to authorize the social workers to take custody of this little boy. This moment that should be so special, this boy's first day on Earth, is ugly.

Shields signs the forms.

He walks silently to his car. He calls dispatch to say he's 10-8, back in service.

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SAN FRANCISCO'S POLICE
DISTRICT
Area: 2.7 square miles.

Boundaries: From Cesar Chavez Street on the south to Duboce, Division and Market streets on the north, from San Bruno Avenue on the east to Portola Drive on the west.

Population: 84,000 people and 34,000 households.

Housing: 35,000 units, 96.5 percent occupied.

Neighborhoods: Mission District, Noe Valley and a good chunk of the Castro.

Demographics: Latino, 39 percent; white, 45 percent; Asian, 10 percent; African American, 3 percent.

Median income: Mostly middle income, with pockets of low income in the Mission and relative affluence in Noe Valley and the Castro.

Significant events: Halloween in the Castro, Carnaval in the Mission, and various anti-war and anti-globalization protests at Dolores Park.

Major crimes: One homicide, four rapes, 141 robberies, 82 aggravated assaults and three incidents of arson in the first three months of 2007. In 2006, there were eight homicides, 20 rapes, 492 robberies, 276 aggravated assaults and 11 incidents of arson.

Commander: Capt. John Goldberg, a 27-year veteran of the department. Four lieutenants, 17 sergeants, 107 officers and three civilians for support staff.

Unofficial station mascot: “Pumpkin,” a pug pup. She replaces another pug, “Mister Big,” who died of an allergic reaction to a vaccination shot.

Unofficial station motto: “Viviendo el sueño,” Spanish for “Living the dream.”

Read the Badge Blog

Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle
Related Article:
San Francisco officer tackles homeless beat

Full story: The Badge — Cops make decisions that affect people's lives






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