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July 16, 2007
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The Badge — Walking the 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
The San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO Steve Keith walks.

He's a foot-patrol cop working out of Mission Station. He works 10-hour shifts and he walks that entire time, except when he's back at the station, filling out reports, or taking a Muni bus from one end of his beat to the other.

He walks so much, he walks a little extra at the beginning of his workweek. "I need to get my legs back," he says, declining a ride to his beat.

He points to the street corners where the gang members hang out, he can tell you where and when the latest murder or beating took place. He knows that one corner with the bad juju; the place where drunks end up dead for some reason.

On a recent Monday, Keith sees a man across the street reaching for his zipper. The man fumbles around inside the fly of his pants and looks directly at the officer. Keith walks across the street, expecting the man to zip up and apologize for trying to urinate in public, but there is nothing more than bleary-eyed confusion.

He's going to the drunk tank for a couple of hours.

A short time later, he finds another man sleeping on the sidewalk, the sun burning down on his face and hands, already the color and texture of tree bark.

"Señor! Wake up!" Keith says, nudging the man and calling him by name. "Policia! Come on."

The man slowly awakens and looks up at the officer. "Ey, amigo, como esta?" the man says in a gravelly slur.

Keith has dealt with this guy before. He'll get up and move on down the street. He will also vehemently decline any help from city services. So Keith lets him amble on down the street to find a shadier place to sleep.

This is the nature of the police foot patrol. It's a throwback to the old days when cops walked the beat, knew everyone on the street, kept the peace and put a personal face on the local police department.

Keith is old-school like that. He's 38, a former Marine grunt who joined the department at 31, a little later than most cops.

Not long after he got out of the academy and finished his field training, he was sent to Mission Station. He asked for and was given the job of foot-patrol officer. His beat is the area between 23rd and 25th streets, from Mission Street to Potrero Avenue.

"This is all I ever wanted to do," Keith says, walking down Valencia toward his beat. "I see these people every day, the same people in the same places. I know them and they know me. I have an investment here. I get to see how things move and change and, hopefully, get better over time."

Keith has a partner, Marty Ferreira. But Ferreira has a secondary job as what the SFPD calls a "specialist." As such, he gets tapped to perform special duties, such as working the crowd for the All-Star game, or providing support to the tactical unit when it performs high-risk searches for bad guys in bad neighborhoods.

As a result, Keith sometimes walks the beat alone.

"The first time I walked the beat alone, I was a little uneasy," Keith says. "Now, I don't think anything of it."

His size helps. At 6 foot 4 inches, Keith is bigger than just about everyone on the street. But the work is about personality. The foot patrol cop is not there to chase after bad guys in the same way as cops in patrol cars. This is about knowing the people on the street and remembering them.

"I've known that guy since he was a little kid," Keith says, pointing to a young man walking down the street, and then greets him. "Hi, Hector. How's your brother?"

The young man nods and says, "It's all good, Keith," and keeps walking.

Keith calls out name after name as he continues his walk. Some know him by name, and it's always just "Keith."

Keith knows who's got a criminal record, and who's a victim. He talks to everyone on the street, starting at the 24th Street BART station and moving on down to the Walgreens on Potrero.

Keith says he spends his time talking to people about what's going on, and what's going to go on. His job, he says, is to look at the big picture and gather information on what's going on in the neighborhood, or adjacent neighborhoods. Then he passes that on to his superiors who use it as they see fit.

"It's not always about making a quick bust," he says. "It's the quality of the contact that's important."

For the record, Keith wears a Size 14 shoe with a special orthotics insert. He doesn't spend a ton of money on footwear. He prefers lightweight boots, about $60 to $80 a pop. He rotates between two pairs and he buys new ones about every six months.

He walks with a slight stoop, a tribute to his size and the weight of his gear. He appears to have a very slight limp, but vehemently denies that he has one.

"Limp? What limp?" he asks.

Later, crossing the street to check on a couple of guys drinking in public, he passes by a man who can barely walk, who drags one leg behind him.

"Now that's a limp," he declares, pulling out his ticket book.

Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle

Full story: The Badge — Walking the beat

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