Beat Cop Preamble

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Being a beat cop in a major city has its perks, and its downsides.

Keeping the regular drunks, hobos, and addicts’ shenanigans to a socially acceptable level (or I should say what the brass thought was allowed) was a large part of my on-the-job training.

The beat cops usually hit the streets early in the shift with the BIG police wagon and filled it up so the store owners could hose down their doorways and sidewalks in time for the early shoppers.

There wasn’t any place for these poor sots to go, but the civilians didn’t want to step over and around a couple of dozen smelly vagrants who had camped there overnight.

Sleeping it off in our station drunk tank was a poor solution to the free meals and hot baths the local missionaries would give out, but by the time our clientele was moving about, and they got on the “black and white express” it was generally too little, and too late.

We kept the most well-known drug dealers off the blocks the hookers used for “business” and didn’t let the “girls” work corners near any schools or churches.

Such a conflict of interest was a bad idea it seemed.

Only the really serious menaces to society actually went to jail.

It sometimes got out of hand when the welfare checks came out the same day as a full moon. (I do not joke. I have statistical proof that low-level street crime apexes when the moon and the free-money checks peak on the same days)

On those days, we didn’t have enough cops or jail cells to do much more than have a revolving door procedure going, and if you’ve ever heard the phrase, “It was like trying to herd cats,” you’ll understand the dilemma.

There are a lot of “secrets” you get to keep in this sort of job.

San Francisco being a very old city as far as infrastructure goes never let’s go of the past.

Especially if it cost money, and didn’t have a direct connection to someone donating money (AKA: bribing) an elected official.

When I came on the beat, we still had these remarkable “Police Boxes” held up by little metal support pillars on random street corners about every eight blocks. They were shaped like little roofed Chinese pagodas, and were cast iron painted with thick (no doubt lead based) waterproof paint. To open them up took a special big brass key that you had to BUY from the Equipment and Uniform Division.

(I kept mine when I retired, naturally.)

Of course, being police equipment, they were maintained and repaired by the fire department.

When you opened the SFPD Police Box, there was a very old-fashioned rotary black Vulcanite plastic dial phone inside, fastened completely off-set to one side of the box’s interior. It was so tight to one side, that picking up the receiver and dialing a number threatened the user with bruised knuckles.

I asked the Street Sgt about this and he lectured:

“It’s tradition from back in the day. The foot-guys would hide a full-size bottle of Black Label whiskey in the center of the box. Before PIC radios, they had to check in every hour or so, and that would give them a chance to ‘warm up’ a tad before lying to their boss on the box phones. Now days, we put a spare ticket book here instead.”

“Don’t we Officer?”

“Yes Sgt, spare ticket books, yes sir”

I wasn’t about to mention what well known liquid courage resided in the lower left-hand drawer of the watch commanders desk.

San Francisco was an “old” mostly Catholic town when it came to membership in the police department.

During his “Welcome to the Mission District,” Sgt C. stood all of us newbies up early one Sunday AM and read us the rules about attending church services while on-duty.

“If you attend Saint Marks or The Dolores churches, you’re clear to receive communion, but for Jesus sake, take your uniform hat off before going forward. Sit towards the back during the sermon and keep your radios to a minimum volume level: The priests don’t want hear broadcasts of hookers robbing people during the sermons,” (and with a genuine big smile on his weathered face).

“The rest of you heathens can do as you wish, just don’t fall asleep too long.”

We all came to love old Sgt C. because he could make you look good to the brass, even when you stepped into trouble really deeply.

When you lived in nearby Petaluma, California, the term “Coop-ing” meant finding a chicken coop residence for your share of the 40 million chickens that lived in the area.

In San Francisco, a “coop” was where certain bigwigs (including mayors, city supervisors, and police brass hats) met up with “friends” and happily passed away lazy Thursday afternoons.

Mayors had personal assistants, supervisors had “consultants,” and the cops had their “beat wives.”

Certain rookie cops got into considerable merde’ once when they hung parking tickets on some high-end black Lincolns parked in corner red zones or inquired (over the general police radio band yet!) what was the Deputy Chief of Police un-marked car doing blocking a driveway at 19th and Alabama?

To end the possible bloodletting, incredibly wise senior Sgt C. took a felt tip marker and put red dots in about five or seven locations on the district map, and passed out the word (verbally, no notes taken), that no vehicle enforcement of any kind would happen within a three-block radius of that marking on Thursday, after 1 p.m.

It’s true. You don’t learn the really important stuff in the police academy.


– Dave Oberhoffer, retired, San Francisco Police Department

Dave Oberhoffer

Dave Oberhoffer

Dave Oberhoffer started a law-enforcement career in 1979, having survived the Vietnam War, and owning an Irish Pub. His San Francisco Police Department assignments were: Walking a foot-beat, numerous sector car assignments, and Vice and Narcotics work. As an Inspector, he was then assigned to the Special Investigations Division for five years. This was followed by work as a Squad Sergeant running a team in the housing projects on Potrero Hill. As a Lieutenant, he ran the Records Division, the Crime Scene Investigation Unit (CSI), and was a Watch Commander in four different districts, retiring at the San Francisco Airport. After retirement, Dave had a cup-of-coffee as a small-town Chief of Police, and then taught Law Enforcement Studies at several Bay Area Colleges.

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