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To Serve & Collect 

Nearly extinct and long at odds with the SFPD, the little-known San Francisco Patrol Special Police appears poised for a comeback.

Wednesday, Jun 4 2008
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The question from TV's Judge Judy to San Francisco Patrol Special Police Officer Hanley Chan was straightforward enough.

"You are a San Francisco police officer — is that correct?"

Fulfilling his bit role on the show as a plaintiff's witness, Chan replied, "Yes, working in the San Francisco special police patrol division."

The remark may have seemed innocuous to merchants and other clients of the little-known armed security force that has patrolled San Francisco's streets in uniform since the Gold Rush and enjoys unique status under the City Charter.

But for members of the San Francisco Police Department, the notion of Chan and his "patrol special" colleagues being mistaken for one of their own — on television or elsewhere — is sacrilege.

And Chan says he's paid a price. After the TV appearance last year, his car was vandalized; he was threatened and forced off a firing range; hauled up on administrative charges for impersonating a police officer; and became the target of nasty comments posted on an Internet message board frequented by Bay Area law enforcement personnel.

The episode and its aftermath is the tip of the iceberg in a long-chilly relationship between the SFPD and the San Francisco Patrol Special Police, who by statute are uniquely allowed to "own" geographic territories, or beats, within which they charge clients for an array of patrol services.

The "specials" insist that the cops have long wanted to eradicate them.

At issue, they say, are millions of dollars for extra police security services funneled from businesses and institutions to regular cops in the form of privately funded overtime under the police department's 10B program, named for its place in the city's administrative code. For years, such services — provided for a fee to restaurants, schools, street festivals, and all manner of retail establishments — were largely the domain of the patrol specials.

But in 1994, with backing from the SFPD and the powerful police union, the Police Officers Association (POA), the Police Commission stripped the patrol specials of their status as peace officers with the ability to issue citations and book their own arrests.

Since then, the ranks of the specials and their assistants — some 250 strong at the time — have plummeted. Only 18 patrol specials, employing fewer than two dozen assistants, survive. Adding insult to injury, the patrol specials accuse the SFPD, which gets the last say in the hiring of the assistants, of sabotaging applications as a further way of squeezing the specials out of existence.

"They're killing us by attrition," says Jane Warner, 56, the feisty president of the association that represents the specials, and a former Honolulu cop. She points a finger squarely at the SFPD and the union. "They managed to downgrade us to take away our clients; now they'd like to put us out of our misery entirely."

But that may not happen.

After months of quiet deliberation, a more patrol-special-friendly Police Commission, which has shown flashes of impatience with the SFPD's handling of the patrol program, has announced plans to revamp the rules, perhaps even yanking the SFPD's gatekeeper role entirely.

The panel's engagement follows months of complaints of mistreatment by the patrol specials. It comes at a time when residents and businesses alike are demanding more community policing of the kind the specials say is their stock-in-trade, and which the SFPD, despite a mandate from the Board of Supervisors a year ago, has embraced only reluctantly.

Still, the police union is digging in its heels.

"The patrol specials aren't real cops, and we shouldn't be talking about expanding their powers," says Gary Delagnes, who heads the POA. "You can bet that we're going to be a player in opposing that."

At twilight, the clubs in the Castro have yet to rev up, but Jane Warner, who has arrived on her beat in a decidedly policelike black Ford Crown Victoria, has a backlog of calls.

On Market Street, at her first stop, a homeless man is sprawled on the sidewalk near the entrance to Home restaurant, where he's been lying in a stupor for four hours. That's also how long it's been since the restaurant's manager, Michael Robb, first called SFPD to have a squad car sent over. One never came. After a couple of minutes of gentle prompting, Warner has the man on his feet and on his way.

"For $300 a month, Jane is the best bargain in town," says Robb, who is a huge fan of the patrol specials. A few nights earlier, Warner had been Johnnie-on-the-spot after a vagabond threatened a female server in the restaurant's parking lot. "The specials fill a vital niche that SFPD, with its strapped resources and focus on serious crime, can't hope to fill," he says.

Warner has been working in the Castro since 1993, after giving up her job in Hawaii to follow a then–significant other to San Francisco. She signed on as a patrol special assistant part-time while pursuing a business degree at the University of San Francisco, but soon dropped out to patrol full-time after becoming enamored of the community policing aspect of the work, she says.

On the surface, there's little about Warner and her colleagues to distinguish them from real cops. They tote nightsticks and carry loaded guns. They wear dark-blue uniforms (although post-1994 rules say they should be light blue). To the untrained eye, specials' badges look a lot like those of the cops, featuring a seven-pointed star as opposed to the SFPD's six. Their radios (which they pay for themselves) are on police frequency. As required by statute, the specials even check in daily at local precinct stations.

But as their detractors will also tell you, with few exceptions (including Warner) the specials have received nowhere near the hundreds of hours of training required of entry-level cops through the San Francisco Police Academy. Rather, they're required to pass a minimum of 56 hours of entry-level coursework, consisting of what the state requires of security guards (who aren't authorized to carry weapons) plus firearms training. Although entry-level requirements are much lower than for regular cops, several patrol specials have used the work as a stepping stone to careers with the SFPD and other police agencies.

About The Author

Ron Russell

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