If you were seeking a tasteof old-school police work in San Francisco, you might try something like this:
A young man at Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park sits on a blanket, smoking marijuana. A stranger approaches him and asks to buy some. The young man declines. Being a free spirit, he insists on sharing instead. He pinches off a few nugs, hands them over, and refuses payment from the stranger, who disappears.
Minutes later, he is surrounded by cops. It was a setup. He is busted. In court, the stranger, who was an undercover police officer, swears the operation was a clear-cut case of possession with intent to sell — a felony. After all, the cop testifies, he stuffed a $20 bill under the free spirit's blanket. This doesn't sell with the jury, which returns a not guilty verdict.
The “sting” is a waste of time: Marijuana continues to be smoked and sold in Golden Gate Park. And it's a waste of money: The cops involved all collected overtime pay.
In modern times, this case — a relic of the Reagan-era tactics that have swelled the nation's prisons to bursting with low-level drug offenders — sounds absurd or fictional.
It is absurd. But it is not fictional. It happened in February, under the watch of San Francisco's last great narc, who, after 45 years of participating or directing this sort of thing, retired last month. This sort of thing may now retire with him.
Greg Corrales is a true believer. There is no “recreational use,” no “medical marijuana,” and no “drug prohibition.” There is dope, dope dealers, and dope fiends.
Corrales retired from the San Francisco Police Department this month, after almost 45 years on the force — perhaps the longest-tenured cop the SFPD has ever had.
The operation in the park was a “buy-bust” operation. In his career, as a narcotics officer and later head of the narcotics unit — which at its peak numbered about 50 officers (including current police Chief Greg Suhr) — Corrales ran thousands of these stings.
And they worked. For 20 years, from 1988 to 2008, there were never fewer than 7,500 drug arrests a year in San Francisco. Usually, there were thousands more.
During this time, no less than one-third of the department's felony arrests were drug busts, according to records on file with the state Attorney General.
Who was getting arrested? Black crackheads, mostly. On his first day in the Hall of Justice, at the height of the drug-arrest era, a newcomer to the DA's office took an introductory tour. On exiting the elevator at the sixth-floor jail, his tour guide, an experienced African-American prosecutor, said: “And here's where we keep our Negroes.”
“And sure enough,” the man remembers now, “everybody in an orange jumpsuit had brown skin.”
This was the drug war, which cops like Corrales waged relentlessly until SFPD ceded the field, and only recently: In 1998, there were 9,360 felony drug arrests in the city. In 2012, the most recent data handy, there were 8,046 felony arrests, total — homicide, rape, arson, theft, and everything else.
The narcotics unit, instantly recognizable in their “undercover” Hawaiian shirts (preferred because “They hide a gun good,” one told me) is now a tenth its former size.
Drugs now make up an eighth of the cases at the Hall of Justice, with 1,403 felony narcotics busts in 2012. But the drug war lived on in the Haight-Ashbury, where Corrales was the cop in charge from 2012 until his retirement May 27.
Buy-busts were negligible there before his arrival at Park Station. After, a quarter of all “decoy” arrests in San Francisco came from the park. Nearly all involved marijuana.
For better or worse, there will never be another cop like Corrales.
He was fearless. The former Marine followed up time in Vietnam by volunteering for the department's most dangerous duty. He was the decoy in buy-busts in the city's public housing projects, and, after he busted a man who was later killed in the Zebra murders, offered to be bait in a sting to net the racist killers (the brass declined his offer).
He was also an outlaw. He did a U-turn on the Golden Gate Bridge and fired his weapon in the air in front of police headquarters. He racked up “hundreds” of citizen complaints, and the city paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle lawsuits against him. He, along with Suhr, ended up indicted for messing with the investigation into the SFPD's Fajitagate scandal (they were acquitted).
And he was such a true-blue drug crusader that when the District Attorney declined to prosecute Castro District marijuana pioneer Dennis Peron, Corrales ratted Peron out to the feds.
He played out the string to the end. A 2012 Bay Citizen profile revealed the scene: a man in his 60s, gray-haired and potbellied, wearing a shirt bearing the image of Grumpy from Snow White, wandering the park, asking street kids to sell him some weed.
It was Corrales, a cowboy clinging to his spurs long after the frontier had been paved over.