10/15/2007

The Badge — Husband and wife: partners both on the beat and at home

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 Two police officers are walking down Leavenworth Street in San Francisco's Tenderloin district when they spot a tall young man popping something in his mouth.

They're only a few feet from him. One officer takes two steps and clamps his hand around the man's throat, pushing his thumb into the tiny muscle behind the man's jawline. His partner grabs the man's arm in one hand and holds on to his jaw with the other.

"Spit it out!" she barks at the man. "Spit it out now!"

The man shakes his head, and the three engage in a violent little dance on the corner of Leavenworth and Turk for a few moments. The officer releases his grip on the man's throat, and the man spits a small white pill onto the sidewalk.

The pill turns out to be a prescription medication that the man, a heroin user, had bought to get a small high. He's wanted in connection with a domestic violence dispute from the day before, and a police van arrives a few minutes later to take him in for booking.

The officers walk back to the Tenderloin Station to complete the paperwork on the bust. Later, they'll drive home together, make dinner and put their kids to bed.

Brian and Irene Michaud are San Francisco cops - and married to each other. This does not make them rare in the department. But they are also partners on the street, and no one knows of another such team in the city.

Irene Michaud is 33 and a San Francisco native. She grew up in the Sunset, went to Mercy High School and spent a couple of years at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont. She joined the SFPD in the hopes of working as a crime scene investigator one day.

Brian Michaud, 40, grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts. He loved punk rock and worked as a promoter for punk rock bands back east until a girlfriend persuaded him to move to San Francisco in 1990. He got a job at Safeway and found out he was pretty good at spotting counterfeit credit cards and chasing down shoplifters. The cops who responded to the calls suggested he join the department, something that had never occurred to him. So he filled out an application.

He started at the police academy in June 1995. Irene Huey started a couple of weeks later, in another class.

They knew each other casually; there were no sparks at first.

"I didn't make a lasting impression," Brian says with a roll of the eyes.

They finished the academy, and both went to Ingleside Station for their field training. Eager to make their mark as crime fighters, they asked to work together, but were told they were too green.

That might have been the end of it, but on Fourth of July weekend in 1996, they had to work overtime, and because of staffing issues, they were teamed up. They busted a guy with 70 pounds of illegal fireworks, which got the attention of their sergeants and lieutenants. After that, they were allowed to work as partners.

After passing field training, they requested and were assigned to the Tenderloin Station. After riding with more experienced cops for a bit, they became partners again. This time, permanently.

"We worked really well together," Irene says. "You spend 10 hours a day with someone, and you get to know everything about them."

"We knew each other's dirt," Brian adds.

But Brian liked Irene for more than just her ability to cuff a suspect. He suggested they date. She said no.

"I was worried about what would happen if it didn't work out," she says. "I didn't want to ruin our friendship or mess up what we had as partners."

The attraction was mutual, but Irene would not act on it.

Brian kept asking. And asking and asking.

In 1997, the patrol car they were in was broadsided by a taxi. Irene was behind the wheel, though she was not at fault. Brian got a gash in his head. "When I was in the hospital, I told her, 'You broke it, you bought it,' " Brian says. "I do all the driving now."

They're a little coy at first about what triggered the start of the relationship, but then admit the moment they went from partners to lovers involved a bottle of Hennessy.

"I was a little nervous about the whole thing, hoping it would work out," Irene says. "But it felt right. I knew this was the person I want to be with."

"I knew it all along," Brian says. "I just had to wait."

So they rode together through the mean streets of the Tenderloin five days a week, and then dated on their off time. That lasted a little more than a year.

The department had no prohibition against cops marrying, even if they're partners. Commanders always have the option of moving people into different places or assignments, and could have separated the two if there had been a reason for it. But by all accounts, the Michauds continued to work well as cop partners even as they dated and wed.

Which begs the question: What does a married couple talk about at home if they've been working closely together all day long?

Kids, for one thing. They have three children, and that takes up their time and energy when they're not on the streets. Her parents are now retired, and they take care of the kids when Brian and Irene work long or odd hours.

On the street, it's hard to tell they are married they're just two cops on the beat. Only occasionally, there is a telltale sign: They see a potential drug deal going down, and Irene casually places her hand on the small of Brian's back, guiding him one way, so she can skirt a pedestrian and get around to the drug deal from the other side of the sidewalk.

Some people in the Tenderloin know they're married. Sometimes, people will ask about the same last name on their name tags. Brian tells them they're brother and sister, prompting funny stares because she is Chinese and he is not.

They both say if they ever got divorced, they would stay partners. Though Irene adds, "It would depend on what caused the divorce."

When they roll up on a drug deal, they work as a team. One goes left and the other goes right. One searches a drug dealer's pants, and the other one calls for backup.

Recently, Brian says, they were trying to arrest a drug dealer and buyer along Turk Street. Brian was putting the cuffs on one and turned to see Irene fighting with the other one, who had decided he didn't want to go to jail. Across the street was a building with scaffolding across its front, and dozens of construction workers watching from on high. They called the police to get backup, which arrived shortly thereafter.

Everyone cheered when Irene got the cuffs on her suspect, and she took a bow.

It's a rough-and-tumble neighborhood, and cops grapple with suspects regularly. Brian says he doesn't worry about Irene when things get tough.

"Hell, no!" he says. "She can take care of herself. I've seen her mix it up."

As they walk out of the Tenderloin Station, Irene reaches over to brush lint from Brian's collar. Realizing a reporter is watching, she jokes, "Just like a good wife."

Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle

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