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May 21, 2007
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The Badge — She carries a gun and isn't afraid to pull the trigger

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

It's lunchtime at Everett Middle School in San Francisco's Mission District. Officer Angela Rodriquez walks into the counseling office to find a young boy sitting in a chair with a forlorn look on his face.

"What's the matter?" she asks.

The boy unclenches his fist to show a very small cut on his index finger. He and his buddies had been horsing around in the hallway, he explains, and he hurt himself.

Rodriguez goes to a desk and gets a Band-Aid. She squats next to the boy, bulky in her blue uniform over bullet-proof vest and thick leather gun belt. She peels back the adhesive and carefully wraps the Band-Aid around the finger.

"There," she says. "All better."

Rodriguez's beat is Everett Middle School at 17th and Church streets. She's the school resource officer, and she's there to keep the peace and coordinate school safety.

Everett is a tough school in a tough neighborhood, but it's a middle school, and filled with boys and girls in the 11-14 age range. Rodriguez, who works four 10-hour days, is at Everett almost every day she's on the job. She does a little bit of everything. She passes out food in the cafeteria, since she needs to be in the lunchroom at noon to prevent fights. She checks for hall passes when she spots a student out of class. She makes an occasional arrest and sometimes teaches classes on topics like substance abuse or violence prevention.

Behind the kind smile and Officer Friendly personality is a tough cop who carries a gun and isn't afraid to pull the trigger.

She's done it before.

Most of the kids at Everett come from poor families who live in an area plagued by drug and gang activity. A lot of kids are already in gangs, which is why the school insists they wear uniforms. Everyone wears black and white. Anything blue or red is strictly prohibited.

"Hey!" Rodriguez barks to a short blond-haired kid. "What's that in your ear?"

The boy stops and Rodriguez examines his earring. It has a tiny red stone. She makes him take it out.

A couple of times a week, Rodriguez takes her pug, Pumpkin, to work. She doesn't have to announce Pumpkin's presence, just dumps the doggy carrier in the hallway next to the counseling office. As soon as the kids catch sight of Pumpkin, the dog is swarmed. The kids want to pet her and play with her. They beg to be allowed to take her leash and walk her up and down the hallway or around the recess yard.

Young boys who swaggered down the street with the hard looks of future gang members break out huge smiles when Pumpkin runs at them.

One tough-looking kid recoiled when he got close to Pumpkin. "I don't like dogs," he said.

"Oh, well, then you have to come here," Rodriguez said, taking him by the hand and showing him how to approach the dog. "See? She's very friendly. You can pet her."

The boy relaxed visibly as Pumpkin took a lick of his hand and Rodriguez smiled.

It's hard to imagine Rodriguez in a gunfight, but that's where she found herself a little more than four years ago.

The shootout took place in 2001. Rodriguez and her partner, Officer Michael Wolf, were patrolling Aquatic Park around 5 a.m. when they spotted three people trying to steal construction equipment. One of the men ran to his Dodge Durango and drove it at Wolf. The officer shot at driver Randall Smith, who shot back as Rodriguez was dealing with the other suspects. Smith then drove the SUV at Rodriguez. She saw muzzle flashes coming from the vehicle and returned fire with her handgun.

Smith ran the Durango into the officers' patrol car and died from bullet wounds. He had a .45-caliber handgun in his hand, and police discovered a MAC-11 9mm machine pistol, a sawed-off shotgun and bulletproof vests in the SUV.

Wolf and Rodriguez were both awarded the gold medal of valor, the Police Department's highest honor.

Rodriguez says the incident doesn't haunt her. It was a valid shooting, she says. The other guys would have killed her or her partner. It was kill or be killed. She can live with that.

Rodriguez eventually transferred to Mission Station. About two years ago, she had the opportunity to switch from patrol to the school beat, and she took it.

She says the change had nothing to do with the shooting.

"I don't think working in the schools is any safer," she says. "It's a very vulnerable place. I've taken a loaded weapon off a student at Mission High."

Rodriguez says she likes working in the school. It's broadened her experiences as a cop, and she likes working with kids. She'd like to have some of her own some day.

"I want to show these kids a positive side of police officers," she says, because so many come from neighborhoods or families where the police officer is not your friend. "I think I've touched a lot of lives. I like it when a kid says, 'You're a cool officer.' "

In one way, Rodriquez is part of the Everett family. The teachers and staff know her by name, and everyone pretty much works together as a team.

And yet, a cop can never be anything but a cop.

"I'm not employed by the Unified School District, I'm employed by the San Francisco Police Department," she says. "In the end, I'm always going to be Officer Rodriguez, not Angela the human being.

Read the Badge Blog

Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle

 
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