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.
Officer Mark Alvarez gets dressed in the basement locker room of Central Station. Chronicle photo by Brant Ward
SAN FRANCISCO — Officer Mark Alvarez walks down Columbus Avenue in San Francisco's North Beach, looking for his regulars.
It's the middle of the afternoon, but that doesn't mean much to the North Beach regulars - the chronic alcoholics, the terminally homeless and the perpetually troublesome wander the streets at all hours.
Alvarez knows them all. He's arrested some of them dozens of times. For theft, for public drunkenness, for assault. The list goes on. So does the relationship between beat cop and petty criminal.
Alvarez finds G sitting on a curb on Vallejo Street at Columbus. G is the first letter of his last name. He's an elderly man with slicked-back gray hair. He looks to be late 60s, maybe in his 70s. He talks slowly and moves slower.
"Hi Mark," he says, scratching his chest.
Officer Mark Alvarez, walking his beat, stops to talk to North Beach denizen Lou Dinarde, seated, and an unidentified woman near Broadway. Chronicle photo by Brant Ward
"You been drinking, G?" Alvarez asks.
"Naw, man. I'm just mindin' my own business."
G has a bandage over one eye. It's the kind of wound you get in a fight, and Alvarez asks him about it. G says he tripped and fell one night at a homeless shelter. Alvarez gets the name and number of G's social worker and says he's going to call to see about better living arrangements.
The officer continues north on Columbus.
"You wouldn't know it to look at him now, but that guy was big trouble around here for years," Alvarez says. "I couldn't tell you how many times we arrested him. Finally got a stay-away order for him, and he was gone for three years.
"But he's a smart guy. He knew when the order expired, and he came right back. Something must have happened, though, because he's quiet and calm these days. No trouble at all."
Alvarez, 48, walks the foot beat on the Columbus corridor in North Beach. It's considered by a lot of San Francisco cops to be the best beat in the city. There's not a lot of major crimes or violence, you get to have coffee in some of the best cafes in the city and deal with tourists and longtime San Franciscans in the same day. And the views can't be beat.
"It's a different kind of policing," Alvarez says as he ambles down the street. He walks with a very slight limp. Not from an injury, he says, just a kind of affect that becomes more pronounced the longer he walks.
Alvarez grew up in Detroit and moved to San Francisco when he was 12. He went to Lowell High School and worked as a doorman, bouncer and bartender in the city for several years before he decided to join the SFPD 18 years ago.
He's always worked around drunks.
Which is useful for him because the regulars in North Beach all seem to have problems with alcohol, drugs or both. The other thing they have in common is the neighborhood. There are a handful of people - men and women - who get drunk and harass people, steal from stores, sometimes take food off tourists' plates.
Officer Alvarez listens to North Beach regular Roy Mottini, who lives in a squalid Tenderloin hotel. Mottini tells Alvarez that his face was cut when someone mugged him. Chronicle photo by Brant Ward
The beat cops like Alvarez get to know the regulars quickly, and a relationship forms. Part good and part bad.
"Some of these people, we're the only friends they have," Alvarez says. "Christmastime, especially, they'll come to the station, see how we're doing or whatever, just for some contact. Even if we've arrested them time after time, they still want to feel that connection."
Shortly after he finds G on the street, Alvarez walks down Grant and comes upon Lou Dinarde. The Chronicle wrote about Dinarde for its homeless series in 2004. At that time, he was living on the street, often sleeping in the gutter or on the sidewalk. But he had plenty of cash - a trust fund that at one point was worth nearly $700,000. Dinarde had the money rolling in since 1992, when his mother died and her assets were sold to create the trust. The city took a big portion of his money to pay for medical services related to his alcoholism.
Alvarez was pretty sure Dinarde would die on the street, but he's still alive, sipping a coffee at an outdoor table. He looks ragged, with blood-red eyes and scarred skin. But he's off the booze.
"I've been sober for a year," Dinarde says. "It saved my life.
"My wife died, though. We had a daughter, but I lost touch with her."
Alvarez walks on. "I arrested that guy at least 15 times," he says. "Sometimes, I would arrest him in the afternoon; he'd get out and get arrested again that same day."
Up on Columbus, he comes upon another regular. It's Roy Mottini. He's an older man. Alvarez explains how the man had been kicked out of a public-housing room and now lives in a squalid hotel in the Tenderloin. He's got a nasty, slightly infected welt on his forehead, right between the eyes. It's a reminder of a brutal mugging a few days earlier.
"It's getting better," Mottini says, touching the wound. "That was a scary time. They held a gun to my neck. I thought I was dead."
Mottini is an educated guy. He says he studied history and literature at the University of San Francisco.
Alvarez is about to move on when Mottini pulls him aside and whispers something. The cop looks around to see if anyone is watching, then reaches into his pocket and pulls out a 10-dollar bill. He slips it into Mottini's hand.
"Thanks, man" Mottini says, eyes welling. "You know I don't do no drugs, and I don't hang out with prostitutes."
Alvarez waves him away. "Get something to eat, Roy," he says.
Reporter John Koopman and photographer Brant Ward are focusing on the San Francisco Police Department. Their stories appear weekly in the Monday paper. To see more photos, more stories and the Badge blog, go to sfgate.com/thebadge.