Other Voices: Understanding police behavior

When I was 30, I was invited on a ride-along by a San Francisco police officer who was a boyhood friend. Chris was part of something called the “S-Squad,” newly formed to “saturate” with police presence the highest crime areas in the city. Unmarked cars, each with two officers in plain clothes, randomly cruised the three neighborhoods with no instructions, except to look for something suspicious and exercise their own judgment.

Chris was a big guy who was very smart and articulate. His partner Frank was older and huge. Frank didn’t say 10 words all night. He just did what Chris told him to do. I rode along in the backseat and did the same.

We stopped to investigate only three times all night. The second was uneventful. In the third incident, Chris spotted a wanted man walking on the sidewalk in the Tenderloin. When we stopped him, the man protested, claiming he was working an undercover case for the FBI. Sure. Without believing, searching or handcuffing him, Chris decided he was harmless and put him into the backseat with me. The man continued with the FBI tale. Chris finally relented, called the FBI and learned the story was true. We drove him to a federal building, where an agent met us at the curb and whisked him away.

The first incident was in the skid-row part of town. Chris saw an older disheveled man walking with a youth about 18 years old. Chris walked up to the older man, identified himself and motioned Frank to stand close to the man’s right shoulder and to me on the left. He politely asked questions while searching his pockets. I’m thinking, “Is this legal?” The man said the young man was his nephew. Chris pulled from the pockets two or three plastic bags with multiple colored pills. He asked what they were for and was told, “Medications.” Chris returned the pills and turned to the kid.

In short order, Chris found out that the kid had been in the Bay Area about two months, was from the Midwest, had been in Pleasanton until last week and had moved to San Francisco to meet up with his uncle. Chris said, “You came to Pleasanton to join the Federal Work Projects Program and bailed out.” The kid’s jaw dropped with an expression that said, “How did you know that?” His pockets were also searched and found clean.

We got back in the car and I asked, “Weren’t those illegal drugs in the guy’s pockets?” Chris said he was sure they were. So I asked why he wasn’t arrested, and Chris explained the whole incident as follows.

“I stopped them because it looked like a new kid in town had been befriended by an indigent who might get him into drugs or do other bad things with him,” he said. “The kid is better off with his uncle protecting him than being loose on the streets and vulnerable. If the kid had drugs on him, I would have taken them both in.”

Most police have the safety of the public foremost in mind. They are required to make quick decisions under circumstances where important facts are not known. One hopes they have good judgment and are encouraged to use it. They often prefer effective results to purity of performance.

Jerry Clements is a Los Altos resident.

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