05/14/2007

The Badge — The day has just gone from zero to 60

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
San Francisco Chronicle

Officers Ray Vargas and Nate Steger are on patrol. It's another sunny afternoon in the Mission District, and dead quiet.

Vargas and Steger don't usually ride together, but their regular partners are off today, so they share a radio car and prowl the Mission Street spine, waiting for a call, or something to happen.

The in-car computer lights up, and shows a call for service on Bryant Street near 18th. Someone has left a bus illegally parked on the street for several days, and the caller wants it towed.

Police work can be very glamorous. Just not today.

The two cops make their way to the call and find an old school bus painted green. Inside you can see that someone has turned it into a personal camper. There's a "for sale" sign in the window. Steger considers it for a moment, and concludes it might be worth buying. But it is illegally parked and the officers start looking around the trunk of the patrol car for the paperwork to have it cited, and later towed.

The sun beats down. Traffic is slow. It's a lazy day.

Vargas' cell phone rings, and the afternoon picks up a notch. A business owner tells him that a bunch of day laborers are drinking and doing drugs on Mission near Cesar Chavez.

That call takes precedence, so the officers pack up and head over.

There are a dozen Latino men hanging out there, but they don't appear to be doing anything illegal. Steger finds a can of beer in a paper bag and dumps the golden liquid in the gutter. They talk to some of the guys, then get back in the car and start north on Mission.

Vargas, a 38-year-old former bike messenger, spots a Toyota with no front license plate and decides to pull it over. The car turns onto 26th Street from Mission. Vargas follows and notices that the car has picked up speed. Instinct tells him something is amiss.

The day has just gone from zero to 60.

He hits the flashing lights as the car makes a right on Capp.

He hits the gas and takes the corner fast.

The car leans hard to the left.

The Toyota should still be visible, but it's not.

Capp goes about a half a block there and then curves sharply to the right, bringing it back to Mission right at Cesar Chavez. Whoever is driving the Toyota has punched it.

Steger, a 39-year-old who grew up as a Quaker in Pennsylvania, turns on the siren as Vargas makes the soft right. Up ahead, the Toyota is moving fast, and the driver is now making an illegal turn through heavy traffic in the intersection to get onto Cesar Chavez.

The cruiser flies down Capp.

The siren screams.

Flashing red-and-blue lights flicker across graffiti-smeared walls.

Adrenaline pumps and the heart beats wildly.

The street is narrow and lined with cars. Tunnel vision sets in, making the street seem to be an inch wide as the big police cruiser picks up speed.

Vargas threads the patrol car through the intersection, twisting and weaving inches past cars to get on the tail of the Toyota.

It looks like the Toyota's going to jackrabbit, but the driver pulls over halfway down Cesar Chavez, pointing west near Bartlett Street. From behind, three young men are visible inside the car, two in the front and one in the back.

Vargas gets out and approaches the driver's side. His .40 caliber semiautomatic pistol is holstered, but his hand hovers over it.

"Put your hands where I can see them," he says, then slaps the rear passenger window and barks to the man inside: "Let me see your hands now."

Vargas reaches into the car and takes the keys. He places them on the car roof. He doesn't look very intimidating, but on the street he's all business. He's a hardcore cyclist; he trains for triathlons. His buddies tease him for having baby cheeks. He says he never intended to be a cop: As a kid in Palm Springs, he said, he spent a lot of time getting chased by men with badges.

"I got into this for the job security and benefits," he says later. "I discovered I really liked it. Now I can't imagine doing anything else."

Steger is on the passenger side. He orders the men to get out of the car one at a time. They're all wearing baggy pants and flat-billed baseball caps turned sideways.

Steger has been on the force for eight years. He spent three years as a cop in Washington, D.C., before moving to the West Coast.

By now, two other cop cars have arrived. The officers put handcuffs on the men and lean them against the chain-link fence that runs along the sidewalk.

The driver and passengers say they've done nothing wrong. But one of them is on probation, so the cops have the authority to search the car.

Steger checks the trunk while Vargas looks under the seats. He pulls out a tire jack and holds it aloft, about 30 feet from where the driver and passengers sit.

"What's this?" he asks. "It looks like the slide for a shotgun. You got any weapons? Anything I should know about?"

"That's a jack handle," the driver responds with an angry laugh. "I used it to change my tire."

"Which tire?" Vargas asks. "When did this happen?"

"Aw, man, it was the front tire about a week ago," the man says with a groan. "Why you hassling me?"

Vargas ducks back inside the car and keeps searching. But there are no weapons, no drugs, no contraband. He returns to the cruiser and takes out his ticket book. The driver's going to get a citation for making an illegal left turn.

The men are uncuffed. They massage their wrists as they get back into the Toyota.

The Toyota pulls into traffic and slows down. In the other lane, facing the opposite direction of the Toyota, is a white Chevy Caprice. The man in the backseat of the Toyota turns to lean out the window and make hand gestures at the man in the Caprice.

"He's flashing gang signs," Steger says.

It's unclear whether the people in the two cars are friends or enemies. Could be either in the Mission. The Norteños and Sureños both claim territory here.

"I was pretty sure we were going to find some drugs in there," Vargas says. "I think they probably tossed it when they were going down Capp."

Steger gets in the car. He calls dispatch to say they've cleared the incident. It's quiet again in the Mission — until the next call.

Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle

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THE BADGE - Prostitution isn't as big as it used to be in the MissionTHE BADGE - A look into the San Francisco Police DepartmentTHE BADGE - Just about every day, cops make decisions that affect people’s lives, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.
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