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Though Cohen says he made "many fine arrests" while on the streets, he clearly takes a somewhat unorthodox approach to policing. As he puts it, "A lot of cops say, 'Let's go out there and pull a blue card'" make a felony arrest. "My thought is always, 'How can we go out there and change somebody's life? How can I change the gap between the community and police?'"
He quickly found his video skills to be in demand around the department. In 1996 the police union, San Francisco Police Officers Association, tapped Cohen to create a half-hour video documentary titled Hearts of the City. At the time the union was bankrolling a ballot initiative that would sweeten benefits for the force, and figured a behind-the-badge-style doc showcasing the human side of police work would help sway voters.
The picture featured Sgt. Kenny Sugrue, a 38-year-old Tenderloin cop with a less-than-macho passion for cultivating roses. The day after Cohen filmed Sugrue, a fatal, stress-induced heart attack felled the sergeant.
After Hearts of the City aired on local TV (and the union won at the polls), police higher-ups gave Cohen a new assignment: He and officer Bob Mammone would launch a new video unit, which would collaborate with the department's Public Affairs office, generating videos both for mass consumption and for internal SFPD use. Cohen went on to spend the next several years shooting and splicing video footage, producing nine documentaries and "dozens" of commercials, as well as filming the political protests that routinely convulse the city. In that role, he got good reviews from his superiors and several commendations for exemplary performance.
Things at the video unit began to change in early 2004 when Fong was elevated to chief. Cohen, whose mother was a reporter and editor with the Contra Costa Times, says he and Fong had conflicting ideas about communicating with the media. He thought the department was best served by talking frankly with journalists, letting them know how a cop might perceive a particular situation, while the chief, he says, "doesn't like the media," and preferred to keep her distance from reporters.
As Cohen recalls it, "Fong came in and tightened the reins," limiting his contact with journalists. "Doing video is an art, and art and law enforcement aren't always compatible." Cohen began agitating for a transfer out of the video unit he'd founded.
By late 2004 Cohen was assigned to Bayview Station, whose officers cover some of the toughest territory in the city, a large swath of land running along the eastern waterfront from the city's southern border up to AT&T Park; the area includes several violence-wracked public housing developments.
Even after his transfer, Cohen continued to tote around a video camera, compiling footage in his spare time. His plan was to produce another 30-minute doc, this one focused on the cops of Bayview Station, and dedicated to Isaac Espinoza, the charismatic officer slain by an assault rifle-wielding thug in April 2004. In addition, Cohen filmed a parodic comedy video to be shown at a station Christmas party and at a retirement shindig for Capt. Rick Bruce.
Cohen certainly didn't expect those images to derail the careers of scores of his colleagues.
In a sober, deliberate tone, Chief Fong addressed the throng of reporters assembled at City Hall on Dec. 7, 2005: "This is a dark day, an extremely dark day in the history of the San Francisco Police Department for me, as chief, to have to stand here and share with you such egregious, shameful, and despicable acts by members of the San Francisco Police Department."
According to department sources, the video came to the chief's attention when Capt. Bruce's successor, Albert Pardini, shared a DVD of the material with her.
Mayor Newsom concurred, angrily telling the crowd the video featured "skits that mock the African-American community, mock the Asian community, mock the transgender community, and mock women in general."
Newsom continued, "It's shameful. It's offensive. It is sexist. It is homophobic. And it is racist. And we're going to make it end and end immediately." Then the mayor gave the journalists a glimpse at the video vignettes, playing several of them on a computer screen.
In a follow-up interview with KTVU (Channel 2), Newsom said the videos he'd shown the public were only the beginning other clips were even worse, but couldn't be shown for legal reasons. "These five tapes you've seen are nothing compared to the other tapes, which are remarkably insensitive," he said. He later added, "Wait till you see the dog collars, wait till you see the Abu Ghraib-type of skit that was done with African-American officers in cages. ... There's some really offensive things here."
Of course, what constitutes an offensive slice of digi-cam humor is subjective, since what the mayor finds repugnant some people would probably find amusing. (The legal travails of the late Lenny Bruce, who in the early 1960s faced criminal obscenity charges in San Francisco and elsewhere for his stand-up comedy routines, come to mind.) That said, if you watch the videos the chief and mayor shared with the media, they don't seem so horrendous. They're far milder, for example, than the standard fare on Comedy Central.