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July 02, 2007
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The Badge — At 71, he's an old school cop

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
The San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO Marco DesAngles just turned 71.

Most people his age are retired. They're playing golf, knitting, driving around the country in motor homes.

DesAngles is catching bad guys.

At 71, he is the oldest cop working patrol in the San Francisco Police Department. There are a couple other officers who are his age, but they're behind a desk. One is an investigator. DesAngles is the only one who still climbs into a patrol car and handles calls on the street.

He might be a senior citizen, but you don't want to mess with him.

"I used to box when I was a kid," DesAngles says with a smile, and a hint of pride. "And I've been in a few fights on the job.

"I can still mix it up."

DesAngles is short, about 5 feet, 8 inches, and he's got a bit of a paunch. But he's got some serious muscle under that uniform. He looks like he could take on a lot of guys less than half his age. Whether he can or he can't, DesAngles is not about to back off because of his age or size.

Like the day a week or so ago when he was in a car on patrol around Dolores Park. He spotted five young men in a parked car in the middle of the afternoon. He parked his patrol car and approached the other vehicle.

"I could smell the dope when the guy rolled down the window," he said.

He asked to see licenses and registration. The men, all in their late teens and early 20s, said they were just sitting and chatting.

"Don't bull**** me," DesAngles said. "Your car reeks of dope. If you guys don't tell me the truth, you're all going to jail."

Under DesAngles' intense glare, the driver admitted that he'd been smoking pot. Then he produced a medical marijuana card to show he had permission to smoke.

"What do you need medical marijuana for?" DesAngles asked, incredulous that a 22-year-old would need such a thing.

Insomnia, the man answered.

No guff

"I could have run them all in," DesAngles said moments later. "The D.A. would have kicked the charges, but they would have been off the streets for a while."

But he didn't. He just barked at them, told them to get out of the car and out of the park. But no one gave him any lip.

DesAngles is part Dominican and part Puerto Rican, with a little Sicilian and French thrown in somewhere in his family (DesAngles is a French name, he said). He speaks fluent Spanish, which often comes as a surprise to the people he deals with on the street.

He grew up in New York City, and that's where he first thought about becoming a police officer. There was a cop on the beat in his neighborhood, Spanish Harlem, and when DesAngles was 8 years old, he would follow him around and pretend to be on the beat.

His family moved to San Francisco in 1949. DesAngles became a cop with the San Francisco Housing Authority in 1961, when that institution still had its own sworn officers patrolling the projects. DesAngles worked alongside San Francisco police officers, some of whom he now works with in Mission Station.

"Working the projects was a tough beat," DesAngles said. "We had some of the toughest guys in the city."

In 1982, the housing police were made part of the SFPD. The housing officers had to complete the SFPD academy and then became regular officers in the department.

Because he started with the housing police, DesAngles is not among the most senior officers in the department. But he's been wearing a badge for a long, long time, regardless of the department.

One officer from the Mission Station, who asked that his name not be used, said DesAngles' nickname is "Papi."

"It's a term of endearment," he explained. "But you have to understand, Marco is absolutely fearless. If you get in trouble out there, Marco will have your back."

Sgt. Carri Lucas was a young female officer on the mostly male SFPD back when DesAngles worked the housing beat. He helped her out of a lot of jams, she said, and she returned the favor whenever possible.

"They shut up"

"People respect him," she said. "They know he's old school. When he's dealing with some tough guys and he tells them to shut up, they shut up."

DesAngles has at least one poorly kept secret: He has a soft heart for people who are down on their luck. Every day, when his wife makes his lunch, she makes an extra sandwich. He carries that with him on patrol until he sees someone who looks like he needs a bite.

A couple of days ago, he was driving down Folsom Street when he saw a tiny old man, homeless, with three years' growth of white beard stained brown around the edges and pushing a shopping cart.

He drove alongside the man, someone he's seen in the Mission many, many times, and asked, "Have you had anything to eat today?"

No, the man shook his head.

DesAngles popped the trunk and retrieved a brown paper bag. He handed it to the man.

"Here you go, brother," he said, getting back in the patrol car. "Have a nice day."

Copyright 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle

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