Cops vs. Cops

They look like cops. They carry guns like cops. They can even arrest you like cops. But San Francisco's patrol special officers are a different breed of police - one marked for extinction by the SFPD and powers that be.

The greatest shame that can befall a cop is to lose his rank, duties and standing as an officer of the court. That shame was visited upon San Francisco Patrol Special Police Officer Steve Russo and the six dozen other active patrol specials on November 30, 1994.

That night, the San Francisco Police Commission voted 4-0 to authorize the police chief to strip the patrol special officers of the arrest powers they had enjoyed for more than 60 years. The commission also authorized the chief to order the specials to replace their uniforms -- almost indistinguishable from the standard navy blue of San Francisco Police Department officers -- with decidedly un-coppish light-blue outfits. Patrol special Russo protested angrily to the commission that if the police chief erased the patrol specials' powers of arrest, criminals would ignore their authority, and that the new uniforms would make him more vulnerable to the bad guys as he walked his beat in the Western Addition.

"You're making us better targets," Russo told the commission. "Light-blue uniforms in a dark alley, light-blue shirts, light-blue jackets, light-blue sweaters -- [criminals] definitely will be able to see us. You can rest assured that a person pointing a gun at us is going to be able to hit us."

Patrol specials tote nightsticks and loaded guns, giving them firepower similar to cops. They receive their criminal justice training at the San Francisco Police Academy or its equivalent, so they think and work like cops. And until Chief Anthony Ribera -- or whoever replaces him -- issues the official memorandum to execute the commission's decision, they will continue to look like cops and arrest wrongdoers just like cops. But the patrol special officers are not regular officers of the SFPD. Although they work under the regulatory supervision of the Police Department, specials are employed directly by private clients: citizens and businesses. Drawing on a tradition of private policing that dates to the semi-official "vigilance committees" of 19th-century San Francisco, they are an anachronism whose special legal status is enshrined in the 1932 City Charter revision.

Billing themselves as the original "community" police, the patrol specials are furious about their recent demotion from police officers to security guards.

"Not one community person ever said anything negative about us," says Sam Reyes, president of the 200-member San Francisco Patrol Special Officers Association, which includes active, inactive, assistant and retired members.

Deriding the commission's vote as a "power grab" -- a hostile takeover of the specials' lucrative security business -- Russo and other specials have sued the city for damages and the restoration of their powers.

The commission's resolution culminated a four-year battle between the patrol specials and the regular SFPD for control of the high end of San Francisco's estimated $117 million private security market. The specials also claim that prior to the "power grab," SFPD officers were unfairly nibbling significant market share from them. They insist that SFPD officers -- and not the public -- are behind the Police Commission's vote. They maintain that SFPD officers have harassed and coerced the clients of patrol specials. They contend that the commission's vote caused the recent loss of their contract with 14 Safeway stores in San Francisco. And finally -- and most incredibly -- patrol special Steve Russo has alleged in court that SFPD officers attempted to frame him on drug charges and then put out a contract on his life.

"It was a hit," says Russo, whose lawsuit alleging this and other SFPD skullduggery climbed the judicial food chain before being denied by the U.S. Supreme Court in October 1993.

The SFPD rejects Russo's and the patrol specials' allegations -- or rather, it undoubtedly would deny the allegations if anyone from the SFPD could be reached on the phone. The department's public affairs office repeatedly passed the buck to the SFPD Field Operations bureau, and specifically to Sgt. Michael "Mickey" Griffin. Griffin did not return calls seeking comment on the allegations. Another key player in the bureau, Lt. Don Carlson, was initially helpful in providing information. But later, Carlson hid behind voice mail and a receptionist's excuses that he was at lunch, on the phone, about to leave, not there at all or gone for the day.

Yet it is undeniable that Chief Ribera's efforts and the Police Commission's vote have eviscerated the patrol specials. Meanwhile, SFPD officers and private security firms, some of which are owned by past and present SFPD officers, have been chipping away piecemeal at the client base the patrol specials have built over the last 60 years.

"[The SFPD] beat us down tremendously and I don't know if there's enough of us to come back," Sam Reyes says. "We're in danger and nobody seems to understand that."

Private Force, Private Profit
The patrol specials' powers are codified in the city's 1932 charter rewrite, giving them a distinct -- and unique -- position in policing San Francisco. Even so, their relatively small numbers and nondescript appearance have allowed them to blend in with their surroundings, rarely attracting media attention more than twice a decade.

The key to the patrol specials' business success is their legal standing as cops. Anyone taking a swing or a shot at a patrol special is guilty of assaulting a peace officer and likely to do some heavy time in jail. This status has allowed the specials to mine that rich niche between the private security industry and the SFPD. Security companies charge up to $20 an hour for guard services; renting an SFPD officer can cost as much as $46 an hour.

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