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.
SAN FRANCISCO — It doesn't look like much from the street. The San Francisco Police Department's Central Station is old and drab with a substandard holding cell and electrical problems. The rest of the building is a parking garage, so the officers who work at Central have tons of concrete and steel and engine blocks hanging over their heads.
Central Station officers dress in a locker area in the basement of the building for their shifts. Chronicle photo by Brant Ward
And it is considered the most desirable place to work in the SFPD.
"If you want to get on the day shift at Central Station, you're probably going to need 20 years in the department," said Capt. Jim Dudley, the station commander.
Some cops want action, so they seek the high-crime stations like Bayview, Ingleside or Mission. For others, it's more about community policing, walking the beat, tipping the hat and chatting up the locals, like they find at Central. "You can fight crime here, but you have to work a little harder at it," Dudley said.
There were three homicides in the district last year and two so far this year. Other stations have that many in a week.
Central Station officers gather to discuss business and to gossip at the big table in their squad room. Chronicle photo by Brant Ward
Central Station is on Vallejo Street between Grant and Stockton, in a cluster of blocks notched between Chinatown and North Beach. Of all the nine district stations, Central contains the most neighborhoods, tourist attractions and events that define San Francisco. It includes Fisherman's Wharf, Coit Tower, North Beach, Chinatown, the Financial District, Union Square, Nob Hill and Russian Hill.
Seven of the top 10 San Francisco tourist attractions are in the district, as well as 12,000 hotel rooms and 30,000 residents.
The view from the top parking level on the roof of the building is priceless. For 360 degrees, there is nothing but the essence of San Francisco. You can see Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, the bay, the city skyline.
The building was constructed in 1969, making it second only to the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St. as the oldest police station in the city.
Jim Deignan is one of the most senior officers in the department, with 36 years on the job. He's spent more than 20 at Central Station.
Deignan has been around long enough to see the neighborhood, and the city, change. He points to buildings up and down Vallejo near Columbus and recites the names of residential hotels that catered to blue-collar bachelors in the old days. Now, those places are inhabited by immigrant families, or have been turned into high-priced condos or apartments.
He remembers the old bars and restaurants where the city's power brokers once held court. Some are still around, like the Washington Square Bar & Grill. But time and gentrification have forced others to the wayside, like the Golden Spike.
Deignan says a lot of cops like working at Central Station because they feel more appreciated there. Teeming with tourists and local characters, the neighborhood is more cop-friendly than the high-crime communities of Bayview or the Western Addition.
He said most chiefs of police, including the current one, Heather Fong, worked at Central Station on their way up the ranks. The commanding officer, as well as the men and women who work the streets, rub shoulders with the rich and powerful of San Francisco.
Elizabeth Barragan and her pug, Penelope, get help with a parking permit from Officer Phil Welsh at Central Station. Chronicle photo by Brant Ward
"This is the kind of place where you have to be personable, as well as do your job effectively," Deignan said.
Until recently, Central Station was also the place where Officer Jesse Serna worked. A Chronicle analysis last year of police records from 1996 to 2004 identified Serna as the officer who had reported the most instances of use of force in the department. Two of the four recent incidents involving Serna have resulted in lawsuits against him and the city, and a third has led to a legal claim, which is often the precursor to a suit. Serna was removed from the station this summer after a review of his record by Chief Fong.
In private conversations, officers at the station expressed mixed feelings about Serna and his removal to a job in which he has no contact with the public. Some said Serna's actions gave the department a black eye; others said the situation was much more complex than that.
"Jesse's a throwback," said one officer. "He's a good guy with a good heart, but he's very tough and he's very aggressive."
Central is known in the department as a "misdemeanor station," but that belies some very real and very serious crime problems that have plagued the district in the last couple of years. The biggest problem has been the late-night scene outside the Broadway strip clubs, the areas around Grant and Green and Broadway and Columbus.
Young toughs, oftentimes gang members from the East Bay or elsewhere in the city, would go to North Beach late on Friday and Saturday nights. They would fight each other, or attack innocent bystanders.
"Young guys trying to make their mark would target couples walking by themselves," Dudley said. "They would make some comment about the guy's wife or girlfriend, and if the guy responded, they would jump him. If he didn't respond, they would hit him anyway."
The problem got so bad, Mayor Gavin Newsom held a news conference at Broadway and Columbus to announce a crackdown on the late-night shenanigans. The police beefed up patrols and enforced a zero-tolerance policy on anti-social behavior. Apparently, that put a damper on the violence, but it still springs up sporadically, according to the officers at the station.
Most other stations in the city are new and nice, with lots of offices. At Central, from the outside, it appears that the station occupies the entire building on Vallejo Street, but in reality, it is only a small space on the bottom floor, with men's and women's locker rooms in the basement.
The heart of the station is a large room where officers write reports and hold line up at the start of every shift. Life revolves around a large conference-room table. Newspapers and paperback books clutter the table, and the officers lunch there on salami and olives from the North Beach delis. It's a place were gossip is exchanged and rumors started.
High up on the wall is a shrine, much like the kind you'd find in a store in Chinatown. There are a couple of Chinese characters, a statue of St. Christopher, a figure of a motorcycle cop, a Pee-wee Herman doll, a troll doll and a couple of overtime cards.
An officer passing by as the shrine was being examined quipped: "That says everything you need to know about Central Station."