Cover photo by Josh Edelson.
The cops are waiting when he steps, blinking, out of the confines of Gunter's Family Restaurant and into the sizzling parking lot. They lean on the black-and-white cruiser, arms crossed in front of their oversize, flak-jacketed chests. The older of the two uncurls himself at a leisurely pace and ambles over at an even more leisurely pace before, with a touch of the showman, whipping off his sunglasses.
The words ooze out of his mouth: "Staaaaaaaaaanley Robertsssssssss."
And then he smiles. A bouncy, even goofy energy overtakes him: "At last! I get to meet you!" He bounds over to shake the hand of the stocky cameraman in the red flannel shirt. "I heard 'KRON' on the dispatch. I just knew it had to be you."
It turns out the aggrieved manager of the adjacent Pacific Market on El Camino Real wasn't merely phoning a heated complaint to the South San Francisco Police Department. He was making dreams come true. Any Bay Area police officer harboring a desire to meet Stanley Roberts need only pine away by the radio and await the inevitable.
Per the complaint, Roberts, creator of the five-time-a-week Channel 4 news segment People Behaving Badly, "refused to leave the premises." This was untrue, but a somewhat milder variant of the standard dubious report relayed to police when Roberts inserts himself where he's not wanted: A suspicious black man with a camera is filming children! Or: A suspicious black man with a camera is casing our store!
Roberts, however, is anything but suspicious. He makes no effort to hide his presence or his intentions. He is not a subtle man.
On this day, Roberts is dropping in on restaurants and markets, camera in tow, to ensure they are, per the letter of the law, posting their most recent health report in plain view. Demanding to be presented with this form, Roberts insists, is your right as a citizen. When proprietors ask why he wishes to review the documents they invariably squirrel away in back rooms and hidden folders, he calmly replies, "Because I can."
On KRON that night, viewers will tune in to observe a procession of slightly bewildered shopkeepers and restaurateurs affixing yellow health reports onto walls and windows with long strips of masking tape. "I don't want a ticket for something like this!" one blurts out. "I never read the rules! I didn't know!"
The voice behind the camera remains monotone: "I'm just trying to help."
Yet people Roberts films behaving badly often don't desire help. He's been assaulted on numerous occasions. (Once, memorably, with ski poles.) Three separate attackers have made off with his press credentials. A flamboyant BMW-driving carpool cheat wearing an Elmo T-shirt elevated Roberts to late-night fodder and meme status two years ago following an extended profane rant about the cameraman's oversize girth and undersize worth.
Thus, Roberts is on a first-name basis with an ever-expanding retinue of law-enforcement officials summoned by those who can do without his kind of help.
That's what happened at the Pacific Market 20 minutes before the rendezvous with the South City cops: After producing his store's health report (a lackluster "Fair" grade) from a private back room, the grocer assured Roberts the necessary paperwork was properly posted on the exterior doors.
It wasn't. And, once outside, he declared the interview to be over: "You need my permission to film me."
Roberts let the camera roll. "We are in a public place," he said. "I do not need your permission."
"You need my permission!"
"I do not need your permission."
"I'm calling the police!"
"Okay, so call the police."
The police were called. When they arrived, they informed the manager that, no, Roberts did not need his permission. Then they waited for Roberts outside Gunter's Family Restaurant.
They wanted to take a picture with him.
Carpool cheating. Urinating in public. Cycling through a stop sign. Drinking Rainer Ale in the park. Failure to post a health report — a satisfactory health report, mind you — in a prominent place. These aren't crimes befitting a criminal mastermind. They aren't exactly crimes at all. "I don't do crime," Roberts says. "I do the quality-of-life issues that affect us all."
He refers to the misbehavior he's been seeking out for nearly eight years as "minutiae ... there are always more important things." But this, for his own reasons, is what he's compelled to film. And, God help us, it's what we're compelled to watch. Footage of city workers dozing on the job or men hurling buckets of human filth onto one another on Seventh and Market are wildly popular, even in far-off lands where, perhaps, this may qualify as normal behavior.
Roberts' inbox is constantly full. KRON established a hotline just for his segment. When he's on BART, fellow riders monopolize his commute with People Behaving Badly pitches; his minor adventures have earned him celebrity status. In a moment of unintended irony, Roberts was asked, "So, is someone behaving badly here?" by a tone-deaf guest at a funeral both were attending.
He receives missives from viewers in Asia, Europe, Australia, even Greenland. A Scottish man told him that weekly People Behaving Badly parties are held there, in which the three-minute, jauntily narrated clips of societal misconduct are consumed in marathon sessions. One aficionado matter-of-factly informed Roberts that he watched every People Behaving Badly segment on YouTube. He did this in alphabetical order, from "AC Transit vs. Stop Signs" to "You Should Never Grab a Reporter!" — and all the 1,197 videos in between.
Clearly Roberts is on to something. His 5 o'clock news segments have garnered some 10 million online views from folks who have, all but certainly, fudged the carpool lane, texted while driving, or pissed in the bushes. The appeal of his show isn't watching lurid crimes, but observing people behaving in a way we're capable of, if not guilty of. These people are recognizably us, caught doing what we try to get away with doing.