The Badge — Carnaval is no party for police

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

Carnaval starts at 1 a.m.

There are no floats, no scantily clad women in flamboyant gowns, no Tecate for sale and no fish tacos. Carnaval starts with a squad of San Francisco police officers setting up metal barriers along Mission and 24th streets. There are hundreds of them connected like one big Erector Set.

It takes hours of hard physical work and is performed by highly paid and trained police officers.

"No one likes putting up barricades, but it's got to be done," says Officer Jim Barber, normally a beat cop on Mission Street. "It makes for a very long day. I started at 1, and I probably won't be done until 8 or 9 tonight."

Carnaval is a lot of fun for most of the people who attend, but it's a huge chore for the police. It's one of three major events for the cops who work out of the Mission Station. For Carnaval, Halloween and New Year's Eve, all days off are canceled. Just about all the officers who work there are on duty for Saturday, Sunday or both.

Carnaval has seen violence in the past. People have been shot and people have been stabbed. So no one takes any chances with planning.

Mission Station has a sergeant whose job is to coordinate all the various celebrations and events in the district. It's a full-time job. The three-ring binder for Carnaval — the binder with all the permits, maps, personnel assignments, memos and the like — is 5 inches thick.

Before the parade gets started Sunday morning, the Mission Station commander, Capt. John Goldberg, walks through the assembled floats waiting on Bryant Street and then the entire length of the parade route. He's checking security, making sure his people are in place and looking for the odd permit violation.

The parade is late getting started, and then there is the issue of the low-rider cars. They have hydraulic suspensions to do the "street bounce," but the police don't like that. Goldberg is worried that one of the cars will lose control during a bounce and slam into the crowd.

"You let them know, anyone who uses hydraulics will be gone from the parade, no warning," a sergeant relays by radio to the people at the beginning of the route.

That's the kind of minutiae and detail the officers have to deal with for an event like this. That and to explain to people along the route why the parade hasn't started yet.

For a long time, the street is empty and the sidewalks full. A young boy, maybe 3 years old, steps out and does a little dance. Barber joins him and shakes his booty for a moment as the crowd cheers.

The Mission Station officers are supplemented by cops from throughout the city. A total of about 260 were on duty Sunday.

If everything goes well, most people don't realize the full extent of the police presence.

But this is Carnaval and the Mission District. The fair straddles the territories of two major rival street gangs, the Norteños and the Sureños. There are also a handful of guys from biker gangs and a handful of hard cases from places like Oakland and the Bayview district. Mix them with alcohol and loud music, and you have a recipe for some kind of violence.

Like the young man on 24th Street who stops Sgt. Larry Gray. The man, who appears to be in his mid-20s, is drunk and maybe high. Someone has been messing with him, he said, and he's going to get into a fight.

"You better go east," Gray says, pointing away from the crowd. But the man won't leave. He's in that zone, impossible to tell when he's lucid and when he's not. After much debate and discussion, he gets a trip to the booking room at Mission Station.

"That guy was going to be trouble," Gray says after the police van pulls away. "He's drunk and he's belligerent and he's in someone else's neighborhood. He was going to get himself killed."

About that time, the radio reports 20 or so people involved in some pushing and shoving at 17th and Harrison streets. The station's gang unit is dispatched. Those officers know who's on probation or parole, who's trouble and who's reasonable. The incident turns into nothing.

This year seems to be pretty good, with only about a dozen arrests as of midafternoon, mostly for drunkenness and minor fighting.

Gray is 51, and an old-time foot patrol beat cop. He walks slowly up and down the Carnaval booths chatting with people and looking for trouble. In some ways, Gray and the other cops are killjoys. They're the ones pouring beer in the gutter, for those revelers who brought their own or snuck a cup out of the beer garden. Gray has to tell one man to cool it because he's getting rowdy near a dance tent.

But he also knows when to let things slide.

He lets an older man go with his open container of Budweiser in a brown paper bag. He sees a man urinating on a truck tire and, instead of citing him or worse, simply says loudly, "I sure wouldn't want someone peeing on my truck." The man apologizes and zips up.

A lot of the cops in attendance are not from Mission Station, and Gray sees them bunched up in groups of four or five.

"If they were my guys, I'd tell them to spread out more," he says.

The groups of cops seem like a show of force, but Gray says the people in the crowd who will be trouble don't see it that way.

"You have to get out and talk to people," he says. "It's the same old police work everywhere. Let people know you see them, get in their faces, make your presence known. Let them know if they start something, you're going to be there and you know who they are. That's the most effective deterrent."

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Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle

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