I Am McLovin
It had taken almost six weeks, but my request for a ride-along was finally approved. I was going to spend a Saturday night in the back seat of a cop car patrolling the Mission District. It was going to be awesome.
My enthusiasm didn’t waver when I was given a bulletproof jacket. Nor did it dampen when the officers explained to me how to behave if we came across a “hot call” — if they ran out of the car with their guns drawn, I was to stay seated in the back, no matter what went down.
This was going to be fun. Sort of like a video game, but better. Bonus points if we ended up doing donuts in abandoned parking lots and some carefree shooting at road signs.
Antonio Balingit, a 31-year-old in his fifth year as a police officer, was our driver for the night. His partner, Vincent Masilang, was also 31, and also in his fifth year as a police officer. The two were in the same class at the academy. Masilang rode shotgun, which was fitting since he’s a shotgun specialist.
The night started with a tour. Ground zero for any and all crime in the district is around 16th and Mission streets, which Balingit called “our little Tenderloin.” It was around 10 p.m., and quiet. But we planned on coming back frequently, since the largest percentage of crimes happens near that intersection.
Not far away are "the tracks," the center of prostitution in the neighborhood. Coined by pimps and prostitutes and co-opted by cops, the nickname for Capp and Shotwell implies that the two streets are the route that the “ho-train” travels. Luckily there was a plainclothes unit in the region, so we weren’t really needed yet.
Then we rolled by some of the housing projects that used to be inundated with Norteño gang members. Gentrification has mostly pushed the Norteños onto random blocks, or else out of the Mission entirely. They’re still a problem, just not as densely concentrated these days.
People look at cop cars funnily. Homeless people stare in anger. Gang members scoff and shrug. Drunk bar-goers laugh and shout things like “Five-Oh! Five-Oh!” like they’re in The Wire . But people transform into amazed rubberneckers when they see someone in the back seat. What did he do? Is he dangerous? At one point, I made eye contact with a girl on the sidewalk. She grabbed onto her friend and said, "Oh shit," like I was going to escape from the car and kill her.
Calls that come into dispatch are grouped into three categories. Calls classified as A Priority mean that someone could be hurt, and range from something as extreme as homicide to far more common crimes like robbery. B Priority calls mean that it’s unlikely that someone is hurt, but the circumstances make the incident serious regardless. C Priorities are the realm of petty inconveniences, like noise violations. We didn’t respond to a single C Priority all night.
Between 11 p.m. and midnight, we dealt with a home burglary, the theft of a wallet and an iPhone, and a stolen purse at Dolores Park – bread-and-butter police work for a Saturday night. “We see a lot of drunk people who walk around on their phones, not paying attention, and their phones get taken right out of their hands,” Masilang explained to me.
It’s very rare that these types of thefts get resolved; it’s even rarer for them to turn into convictions. The most that officers like Balingit and Masilang usually do with petty criminals is arrest them and send them to a holding tank at the police station. There’s no lingering for the cops: they immediately get back on the street to address other concerns, knowing full well that their arrestees will return to the streets almost as quickly as they do.
“This city doesn’t convict a lot,” Balingit lamented. “We see 90 percent of crime committed by 10 percent of the population. The same people keep on committing crimes, and we keep on arresting them, but they end up right back on the streets because it’s expensive to prosecute, and much easier to set up a quick plea bargain.”
As for gang violence, a very real problem in the Mission, Balingit was equally cynical. “The SFPD has arrested some high-up gang members, but they just get replaced by the next guy. The gangs aren’t going anywhere. But neither are we.”
From midnight to 2 a.m. we drove circuitous routes around the same few clubs, spots like the Blue Macaw and the Elbo Room, where crowds tend to congregate and drunks start butting heads.
At this time of night, the most important thing for officers is to be as obvious as possible. The easiest way to do that is to pull people over. So we did that. If we saw a guy with a tail light out, or turning left where it’s prohibited, we pulled the car over. Not to cite the guy. Not to be dicks. We did it in order to have police lights flashing on busy streets where drugs are sold, gangs congregate, and the inebriated get rowdy. In the course of an hour, we pulled over four cars along Mission Street, and didn’t ticket a single driver. We were just letting our presence be known.
Around 2 a.m., we responded to a report of domestic violence. The downstairs neighbor, an elderly man who told us he had AIDS and couldn’t stand the incessant fighting throughout the night, was the one who called 911. We went upstairs and banged on the door for 10 minutes. No one responded. The cops kept banging on the door, over and over again. With each thud, the night became less fun. Less exciting. Less like a video game. And more like real life, with all its tragedy.
As we were pulling away from the domestic violence call, a car up the block revved its engine and peeled away, tires loudly squealing. It was 2:45 a.m. Masilang quickly ran the license plate. “Stolen vehicle! Stolen vehicle!” he yelled out. Balingit flipped on the siren and the lights, and the car pulled over. The two cops jumped out with their guns drawn, and then it turned into every cop show you’ve ever seen. Yelling, confusion, tension, and for me in the back seat, the fear that something might go horribly wrong. But the guy didn’t resist. He didn’t try to run. He got out of the car and was cuffed.
I suddenly felt thankful for my bulletproof vest.
Back at the station, the car thief was in the holding cell, along with a passed-out drunk guy who snored and smelled, and a well-dressed guy with blood stains on his fancy jacket. The well-dressed guy was too drunk to realize what he’d done, but he had beaten a man senseless a few hours earlier.
The police get involved with strangers when they’re at their worst. They barge through the doors of our lives when they are unwanted and unwelcome, and after doing their job, they often leave unthanked. This reality sunk in deeper and deeper for me over the course of the night. People had cursed at us. They had thrown trash at the car.
I was surprised to feel sorry for the cops. I’ve never been a police apologist, and I don’t think I became one overnight. But that night in the Mission, I gained a lot of empathy for the cops after seeing the city through their eyes. It isn’t always pretty. And it’s definitely not Hollywood.
It's not exactly easy to get a police ride-along. Remember, it took me six weeks to get my request approved. However, you can take a six week class with the Community Police Academy, which gets you a week’s worth of ride-alongs.
The easiest way to not become a crime stat in the Missin District is by staying aware of your surroundings. Most problems arise when someone leaves a bar intoxicated and plays on their phone the whole way back to their car, completely oblivious to what is happening around them. Keep your eyes up and everything should be fine.