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July 09, 2007
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The Badge — On Saturdays in nightclub district, it's always a fight

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 It's Saturday night fights in the Mission District.

Just after midnight, officers from the Mission Station get a call to one of the hot nightclubs in the district. It's a fight.

It's always a fight.

Officers Eric Santiago and Joe Mendiola roll up to the club on Mission Street along with three or four other patrol cars. The club is packed, and several dozen people are on the sidewalk or milling in front of adjacent clubs. Loud electronic music pours out of the club and bounces off the walls up and down the street, the thumping bass drowning out conversation and causing people to sway to the beat.

Men in untucked shirts and women in tight skirts make out in the corner as the well-dressed doorman explains what happened. A woman was denied entry because she was intoxicated. Witnesses say she kicked the doorman and he tried to push her away. Both parties called the police.

While that's going on, another fight breaks out across the street. Santiago and Mendiola walk over to check it out, but the fighting is done when they get there. Two men are sitting on the steps of a bank, elbows on knees and heads hung low.

"He's my best friend," one man says, slurring his words and pointing to the guy he'd just been fighting.

"Have you been drinking, sir?" Santiago asks.

"I'm drunk," the man says with a nod. "It's my birthday. He's my best friend."

The officers shake their heads and move on, after birthday boy's friend assures them they're going to take a cab home.

The scene on Mission looks like a party. Red and blue lights bounce off the walls as people talk, yell, flirt and move from club to club. A taco vendor has set up on the corner, and the smell of carne asada wafts for blocks.

Three people, apparently local residents, walk down the sidewalk. One yells to the partyers at the club across the street, "Nice shirt, Yuppie!"

Mendiola and Santiago are two young cops; they've been with the department about three years. They went to the academy together, so they know each other well.

They work the overnight shift, 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. That's a tough enough shift for anyone doing any kind of work. But it's a whole other world to be a cop on Saturday night in the Mission. The area has high-end restaurants and froufrou bars next to burrito joints and crusty taverns. Latino gang members cruise the streets, while across-the-bridge kids mingle with the working-class immigrants, anarchists, artists, activists and bike messengers who make the Mission their home.

Finally, it's 2 a.m. Closing time. Hundreds of partyers hit the streets. A call comes in. Another fight.

This one's at a liquor store on Mission near Cesar Chavez.

The officers find a young Latino man on the corner. His English is limited, but he explains that he and his buddy got jumped by a group of men in the store. Both got hit, but his friend took quite a beating and ran off. The man doesn't know what happened to his friend, or even whether he's still alive.

The man uses his cell phone to call his friend several times. Finally, the friend answers. He's barely lucid, but explains he's now on the corner of 24th and Mission.

When the officers arrive, they find the man on the corner, slumped against a light pole. He doesn't speak much English, either. His face is bruised, and blood is running down his arm and from cuts on his knuckles. His head hurts and so does his neck. He lifts his shirt to show a softball-size bruise on his ribcage.

The officers call for an ambulance. As they try to question the men about what happened, two women walk past, stop and saunter back to where the action is. They watch the medics checking out the injured man, and the officers talking to his friend.

"Hey!" one shouts at the officers. "Why don't you leave him alone? Go on up to 24th Street in Noe Valley and hassle those white people for a change!"

"Ma'am, they called us," Mendiola says. "They're the victims."

"Oh," she says.

But she and her friend walk across the street and continue with a barrage of "white people," "bad cops" and "go back to your own neighborhood this is where I live."

Mendiola sighs.

The ambulance takes the beating victim to the emergency room at St. Luke's, nearby. A Spanish-speaking officer shows up at the algae-green emergency room and helps Santiago question the victim.

The story is that after leaving a nightclub, the man bought a six-pack of beer at a liquor store. Six men approached him, and one demanded the beer. The victim refused. The other man pulled a knife. The victim dropped the beer, took one bottle and smashed it on the ground, to use the leftover shards as a weapon.

The six men jumped him, knocked him to the ground, beat and kicked him.

"He said he got in one jab with the broken bottle," Santiago says. "Cut his face pretty good. He said he saw blood."

The officers gather up their notes and prepare to leave. Waiting in the emergency room behind them are three other young men, all white. One has a towel wrapped around his hand.

"Got into a fight," he says proudly, out of earshot of the police.

"Yeah," his friend says. "He cut his hand on the other guy's mouth."

"If you think this looks bad, you should see the other guy," the third man says.

Copyright 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle

Full story: The Badge — On Saturdays in nightclub district, it's always a fight






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