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.
For many businesses, the patrol specials are a great deal. Steve Russo, for example, provided relatively inexpensive security — $500 a month — for a liquor store in the Western Addition. One of the store's owners says the business “used to have the worst corner in San Francisco, and [Russo] cleaned 'em up” over a period of six months. Asked about how changes in the patrol specials' status will affect his store, the proprietor said, “It's [already] not effective like before. It's going to be worse and worse.” [page]
But for now the patrol specials do what they've always done. Walking a beat in the Castro with three assistant patrol specials — Jim Kane, Jane Warner and Will Escobar — one can't help but accept their claim to being community police. Several stores had posted signs in their windows proclaiming, “This merchant supports the San Francisco Police Dept. 'Patrol Specials' for a safe neighborhood.” The patrol specials checked in and chatted amiably with each client in the retail ground zero around 18th Street, tried (without apparent success) to refer a homeless girl to a shelter, and generally made themselves a very visible presence.
The patrol specials were also a very welcome presence at a clothing store on Market near Sanchez, where they responded to the manager's complaint that some crazy had repeatedly tried to fight with one of the employees.
“He was obviously incoherent,” the manager said, describing a scruffy-looking white male in his thirties wearing a brown suede jacket. Two local stores had been robbed in the last several months, and the manager was visibly relieved at seeing the officers. As she locked up the store for the night, her familiar salutation to the patrol specials — “Thanks, guys!” — reflected their solid relationship.
Over the years, the patrol specials have carved the city into 55 separate “beats” or territories, and the City Charter bestows monopoly powers upon the beat's owner. Of course, regular SFPD officers patrol the areas, as well, but no outside patrol special can offer “augmented security” to clients in that beat, except by mutual agreement with the special who owns it. This is the concept of turf, codified. The specials may provide security to any business within their beat — usually apartment buildings, schools, supermarkets and medical centers — at whatever price the market will bear, with no limit to the number of subscribers.
This business monopoly makes the patrol specials' beats enormously valuable: Subject to Police Commission approval, the beats are both salable and inheritable, making them a unique entity in U.S. law enforcement. There are currently 22 patrol specials in the city, and the law requires that they actually work their beats, not merely administrate while their assistants (numbering about 50) take the public's heat.
The city once was home to more than 140 beats, says Officer Randy Young of SFPD Field Operations, but that number has shrunk as patrol specials have bought each other out and beats have become dormant.
As a general rule, a beat sells for about 10 times its monthly revenue. In 1977, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, a bundle of three beats covering an area bordered by Van Ness, Scott, Turk and Union sold for $128,150, or an average of $42,717 each. Assuming that base-line price, San Francisco's 55 beats were worth $2.35 million in 1977. Given 18 years of inflation and a real-estate boom, the value of the beats has rocketed. A 1993 lawsuit lists two patrol specials' beats as having a “going concern” value of at least $1 million each, but no one knows the aggregate value of all the beats. Although SFPD salaries and its budget are public domain, the specials needn't disclose revenues to anyone but the Police Commission, which treats the information as confidential.
10B or Not 10B
The patrol specials have come under political attack at least nine times since 1932, but because their legal status is written into the City Charter they have emerged unscathed. (The charter is notoriously difficult to amend, except when a highly critical issue like banning loitering near ATMs is concerned.) Mayor Dianne Feinstein's bid to eliminate the patrol specials' powers in the mid-'80s failed when the specials rallied the support of their clients and the communities they patrolled. It wasn't until about 1991 that the most successful assault on the patrol specials began in earnest, an attack based on the economics of a burgeoning private security market.
The rising value of the patrol specials' beats parallels America's obsession with security. Alarm systems and the Club are nice, but nothing gives you the same sense of security as hiring another mammal to watch your stuff. Al Howenstein, head of the California Alliance of Licensed Security and Guard Agencies, a Sacramento lobbying and professional association, says there are now about 5,400 private full- and part-time security personnel working through guard agencies in San Francisco. That's about one for every 135 people — three times the number of SFPD officers — and doesn't include guards on business payrolls. If those 5,400 security workers are putting in 30-hour weeks at an average of $14 per hour, you're talking about a San Francisco security market worth $117 million, or roughly the GNP of the island nation of Tonga.
The patrol specials say the Police Commission face-off is all about the SFPD officers' lust for a piece of the multimillion-dollar security pie, alleging that moonlighting SFPD officers covet the security business controlled by patrol specials.
While the competition is mostly about money, some of it touches on pride: The specials think of themselves as loyal and dedicated police officers who just happen to work for private clients. “When I'm out in the field I do police officer work,” says assistant patrol special Jane Warner. Meanwhile, SFPD officers regard the specials as ill-trained mercenaries — “a liability to themselves and the citizens,” as Sgt. Mickey Griffin was quoted by the Associated Press last October. (In a brief interview, Griffin denies having made the statement attributed to him. He was also unable to recall what he did tell AP and maintains he never saw the story, which was printed in the New York Times.)
Whether the SFPD can be bought is one thing, but it can quite legally be rented under Section 10B of the city's Administrative Code: SFPD officers who volunteer for overtime are routinely detailed to provide security services for businesses, and the private client picks up the tab. (The major difference between patrol specials and SFPD officers is that 10B limits SFPD officers to work for just one client at a time.) [page]
Citizens and businesses can request these “augmented” police services through the SFPD Field Operations bureau, and if the chief agrees that those services are warranted, Field Operations refers the request to the district station with jurisdiction. District captains help determine the exact need for security and quote a price, although they're not above “strongly recommending” a whole squad of officers for really large events or clients, one Field Operations lieutenant says. Officers working under 10B are detailed to everything from movie and TV commercial shoots to construction projects and street fairs.
The going rate for a 10B officer is time-and-a-half, which goes to the cop, plus a 22.5 percent markup for “administrative overhead” that tumbles into the ravenous maw of the city's general fund. Oh, and there's a four-hour minimum per officer rented. According to Lt. Don Carlson of the Field Operations bureau — the clearinghouse for 10B assignments — clients fork over $44.83 an hour for daytime police services, while a “night premium” bumps the rate to $46.69 between 7 pm and 9 am. For a bar owner, the $373 he might pay an SFPD officer for eight hours of security services might exceed the combined payroll of a bartender, a waiter, a doorman and a DJ.
Lt. Carlson says about 1,050 of SFPD's 1,800 officers are currently signed up for 10B projects, with 10B work going to about 75 to 80 percent of those who request it. SFPD officers ordinarily work 10-hour shifts four days a week. The department limits officers to 14 hours on the job during those four days, but on “off” days 10B officers apparently can work an unlimited number of hours. An industrious cop could easily chalk up 60 hours a week on his timecard if there was enough 10B work to go around. (Lt. Carlson says he is currently working on new guidelines that would cut back 10B work to 20 hours per pay period.)
The 10B attraction is self-evident. Freshman police officers gross $43,952 a year; cops can earn a few thousand more through seniority, by accruing premium pay for joining the motorcycle detail or by taking emergency medicine training. But by the fourth year, an officer bumps the salary ceiling; to earn more, he must gain a promotion or work on the side.
Our financially teetering city is reluctant to pay cops time-and-a-half unless there is a newspaper strike or a parade. So what's a poor police officer plagued by a mortgage and orthodontist bills, plus commutes from Martinez in a gas-sucking urban assault vehicle, to do? Faced with these conditions, wouldn't you try to squeeze out the competition?
A Federal Case
That's exactly what a couple of patrol special officers allege: That a group of SFPD officers tried to muscle in on the specials' turf. Check out the following incidents, alleged in Russo & Reyes v. Willis Casey et al., a 1992 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
The suit draws on the alleged events that followed the deal signed in 1991 by patrol specials Steve Russo and Sam Reyes with the John Stewart Company, managers of HUD's Geneva Towers housing project. Over the life of the two-year contract, Russo and Reyes would have netted about $2.5 million for policing one of HUD's more unsecure housing developments. The specials would have done some of the work themselves, but also would have hired 10B officers from the SFPD and cops from surrounding jurisdictions at wages comparable to the city's.
Russo & Reyes v. Casey maintains that SFPD officers weren't about to let the patrol specials win this contract. The suit alleges that the John Stewart Company was contacted by at least five unnamed district captains and by similarly anonymous figures in then-Chief of Police Willis Casey's office. The callers allegedly pressured the John Stewart Company to hire “a group other than Russo and Reyes,” identified in the lawsuit as Beijing Private Security Services, a company managed by SFPD officer Leroy Henry, whose wife Bitsy was its president.
In a conversation Russo taped with Geneva Towers manager Sharon Brown (which is cited in the suit), Brown said that unnamed SFPD captains told her that hiring Russo and Reyes would result in the loss of regular police services for the project. Russo now recalls asking Brown, “Are you telling me you're not going to get any police services if you go along with us?” Yes, Brown replied.
Faced with losing the backbone of their police protection, the suit says, the John Stewart Company dropped the specials from the contract on July 12, 1991, and engaged Beijing Private Security shortly thereafter.
(The lawsuit further alleges that Beijing lacked the legal credentials to fulfill the Geneva contract in any case, and that the license they did use to operate there was later canceled. Calls to Beijing Private Security yielded only a polite “I don't care to talk about that” from manager Leroy Henry, who years later remains a “Q2,” or regular SFPD officer.)
Russo and Reyes sued the city (and everyone else involved) for causing the breach of contract, and the case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it: The suit was “time-barred,” meaning that the relevant events in the suit took place too long ago to merit judicial attention.
The suit additionally says that as the patrol specials negotiated with the John Stewart Company, members of the SFPD attempted to kill Steve Russo. The farfetched scheme in the suit alleges that in February 1991, a Park Station SFPD sergeant “volunteered to implement the punishment of Russo and to silence” him following a dispute Russo had with Chief Willis Casey at a Police Commission hearing. The suit further alleges that on April 11, 1991, the sergeant had Russo paged to a client's building in the Western Addition where the sergeant had arranged for a plainclothes SFPD officer to impersonate a drug dealer. Russo's suit claims that the sergeant's plan was to frame him for skimming evidence from the resulting drug bust, an attempt that the suit says failed. [page]
In a wholly fantastical scheme, Russo claims that two weeks later, a convicted murderer was turned loose on him by SFPD officers. The weapon in the attempted murder was a small truck, although the suit does not explore why Russo's attackers used a truck for their clumsy “hit.”
Repeated attempts to reach sergeant named in the suit for comment were rebuffed.
The Legal Arena
Russo's allegation of contract murder stretches credulity, but the notion that the SFPD is trying to rub out the patrol specials doesn't. Lt. Edmund Pecinovsky, commander of the SFPD legal division, has openly labored to terminate the specials for more than a year.
Last year, Pecinovsky appeared before a civilian committee that was reviewing the City Charter for the Board of Supervisors, a committee that hoped to place a charter reform measure on the ballot Pecinovsky asked that the patrol specials be moved to the city Administrative Code and thus out of the charter entirely, a seemingly minor change in status that would have made it simple for the chief of police to eliminate the specials.
Pecinovsky confirms that he acted on Chief Ribera's behalf, saying, “If the idea is to streamline the charter, [the specials' position] goes contrary to that.” He adds that the patrol specials' place in the charter “clearly is a special-interest section.” Understanding the specials' apprehensions about a change in their status, Pecinovsky says that their position is “a highly personal issue for them. They're here to run a business and make some money.”
Pecinovsky told the civilian committee that he was appearing on behalf of Ribera and the Police Commission, when in fact he only represented the chief. He later admitted this overeagerness; in any case, the committee voted overwhelmingly to keep the specials right where they were. His next stop was the Board of Supervisors' charter review committee, consisting of Carole Migden, Susan Leal and then-supe Bill Maher. Pecinovsky here made a nearly identical request, but this committee also voted to maintain the patrol specials' status.
Blocked by the charter reformers and the supes, the only venue for a rub-out of the patrol specials was the Police Commission. Thus the stage was set for a showdown.
At its November 30, 1994, meeting, the commission passed a proposal to rearm SFPD officers with semiautomatics and plodded through various police disciplinary matters before considering Resolution 177-94, “Revised Rules and Procedures for Patrol Special Officers and Assistant Patrol Special Officers of the SFPD.”
The proposal included dramatic changes to the patrol specials' status, contending that specials are “private patrolperson[s]” and that “no need for peace-officer status exists or is required.” This language contradicts the City Charter, which specifically calls patrol specials “police officers.”
Who rewrote the rules, which so downgraded the specials as to make them useless? Lt. Pecinovsky says it was the folks over at Field Ops — he says he doesn't know who — the same people who manage the 10B program.
Commissioner Katherine Feinstein, daughter of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and liaison between the San Francisco Patrol Special Officers Association and the commission, said she had read “every piece of paper” from all sides involved, and the patrol specials seem satisfied that she dealt with them fairly. She recommended that the commission adopt the rules changes, but with the following caveat: “If the police department is going to adopt these rules … [it] must look at its 10B policy.”
Later in the meeting, Chief Ribera responded to Feinstein:
“We do not want to be competing for clients with the patrol specials, and I want to … ensure that that does not happen. It should not happen, that's not what 10B's all about.”
No member of the Police Commission or staffer from the chief's office explained why an institution that had chugged along for 60-plus years, putting extra cops on the street and costing the city treasury next to nothing, required such a radical overhaul.
The SFPD certainly has a legitimate interest in regulating the number of security people running around with guns, but in whose interest would such drastic changes be? The patrol specials said they knew exactly who.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Steve Russo's brother Ken got into a shouting match with a commissioner when told his time was up. Every commentator was a patrol special or an attorney representing one, all of whom vociferously objected to the rules change.
The specials claimed that the SFPD was placing its own interests in front of the public interest; that the specials had been libeled in the Associated Press story; that the commission was effectively firing peace officers when recent federal legislation gave the city money for hiring new ones; and that criminals could now “punch out” a patrol special and no longer be charged with assaulting a peace officer.
“The issues here are money — not professionalism,” Steve Russo said at the meeting. “Money. The issues here are [that] many of these officers who work in the SFPD or are affiliated with the SFPD own security companies, and they in fact have assisted in campaigning with officers of the Field Operations bureau to solicit this particular Police Commission to, once and for all, remove the [specials'] peace-officer status, therefore rendering our services worthless to the citizens of the City and County of San Francisco.”
The commissioners and the police chief agreed that the new rules would not end the discussion of the patrol specials' status, and all heartily praised the specials as a group. Nonetheless, when voting time came, the commission adopted the new rules — without any further public debate — by 4-0, with Commissioner Wayne Friday abstaining. Friday, who lives in the Castro, later said he wasn't happy with the proposals as a package, and that he'd been “flooded with phone calls from merchants” and other citizens who thought the specials were doing a good job in the Castro. [page]
For most of the last year, a patrol special officer or an assistant has stood guard at all 14 of Safeway's San Francisco stores. But shortly after the commission vote, the patrol specials vanished from the Safeways. The grocery giant's policy is to employ only those armed guards who possess peace-officer powers, spokeswoman Deneen Murrieta says, and unarmed guards otherwise.
“Our decision was made to not use the patrol specials because of liability issues. [The specials] could not prove they had sufficient [liability] insurance,” she says, declining to link the commission's rules change to the cancellation. Patrol special officer Sam Reyes says each Safeway contract was worth more than $200,000 annually, for a total of $2.8 million.
Safeway replaced the patrol specials with unarmed regular security guards; some of the contracts were picked up by Ambassador Security, according to Ambassador's CEO, Richard Hongisto, the former police chief.
Meanwhile, Chief Ribera continues his jihad against the patrol specials on an old front. Last year, he failed to convince the Board of Supervisors to move the specials from the City Charter to the Administrative Code; this year, he's approaching the board again.
On February 9, 1995, board budget analyst Harvey Rose sent a memo to the board's Select Committee on Charter Reform. It contains this sentence:
“The Chief of Police recommends that the PSOs be removed from the Charter and placed in the Administrative Code to permit the Police Commission, Chief of Police and Board of Supervisors to exercise management and policy control over the PSOs without the necessity for a Charter amendment.”
“What would happen is if they take us out of the charter,” says Serge White, a patrol special, “[is that] it would just be a certain amount of time before [the SFPD] got rid of us completely.”
The 200-member San Francisco Patrol Special Officers Association has filed three lawsuits in Superior Court in this war between the cops. One suit alleges unlawful loss of business; a second challenges the legitimacy of the city's new rules.
But the third is the keeper. It seeks to have the city aggressively enforce Section 1750 of the Police Code, which says that when a private security operator registers to operate in the city, “such registration shall be dis-approved where the territory sought has been allocated to a patrol special officer.”
Under the City Charter, every square inch of the city is allocated to a patrol specials' territory.
If the specials were to win a favorable decision on Section 1750, they could extract a very large cash settlement from the city or force every private security operator out of town and own the whole San Francisco security pie. In winging the patrol special officers, the SFPD may have shot itself in the foot.
No matter how the lawsuits are resolved, patrol special Steve Russo and assistant Alan Stancombe have had enough. Steve Russo has left town for now, turning his beats over to a couple of other patrol specials. Stancombe has sold his interest in a beat he planned to buy and is taking the LSATs this summer; he may be attending law school in the fall.
Stancombe has no interest in becoming either a beat owner or a regular police officer, and voices disdain for the Police Commission and Geneva Towers affairs.
“When they take police officer power away from me,” Stancombe says, “I'm not going to be a security guard.