The San Francisco Police Department and the Tenderloin neighborhood are dealing with a devastating blow to their community this week. On Wednesday afternoon, Officer Elia Lewin-Tankel, 32, was biking around the neighborhood when he was struck by Maurquise Johnson, 50, who was driving a white Lexus SUV. The driver fled the scene, ditched his car in the Panhandle, and spurred a multi-hour manhunt that shut down various parts of the city. He was eventually apprehended on the 300 block of Ellis Street later that day.
While Johnson is in custody, Lewin-Tankel is fighting for his life in Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, and already many in the Tenderloin are feeling the loss of his presence on the streets.
Brett Walker, owner of George & Lennie on the 200 block of Golden Gate Avenue, and a friend of Lewin-Tankel, tells SF Weekly that concerned neighbors have been talking about the incident all morning in his coffee shop.
“We’d see him once a day, almost,” says artist Katie Gong, who co-owns artist collective Get High on Mountains across the street, and who went to school with Lewin-Tankel’s wife. “He comes by and checks in, just hangs out with us and makes sure things are good.”
Lewin-Tankel became a member of SFPD in 2012, after attending Hastings School of Law — a school which he began attending again recently in hopes of finishing his law degree. Despite aspirations to become a lawyer, he’s a good cop: In 2015, he received SFPD’s Purple Heart Award.
He worked the beat in the Mission for several years, until he was permanently assigned to the Tenderloin in March 2016 — a challenging station for any cop. But despite the constant day-in-day-out quality of the neighborhood, it quickly became his community.
For both Gong and Walker, having an ally in the neighborhood is no small thing. “It’s like you’re on an island here sometimes,” Gong says, referencing the block where she and Walker work. “You can arrest people in this neighborhood all day long. But he would give people the benefit of the doubt. No one gets that around here, and it’s such a redeeming quality. He’s just so clear-headed, good with people, and easy to talk to. He’s in people’s corners.”
“He just gave us his cell number,” Walker says, scrolling through dozens of texts exchanged between the duo on his phone. “One time we texted him when he was in Morocco. He responded right away and said ‘I’m on vacation, but I’ll send someone.’ ”
Over time, Walker and Lewin-Tankel became close, and the officer would commute to the cafe on the weekends, with his dog George in tow. He made use of George & Lennie’s photo printer, making hard copies of photos he’d taken of his dog on his phone.
That style of community-based policing is at the core of who Lewin-Tankel is, and it made a big difference with the people he interacts with daily.
“No one understands what it’s like to be out here on the streets every day,” explains Walker. “Whether you’re a homeless person, a beat cop, a dealer, a business with their doors open every day… It’s a very challenging job. But this is what policing should be. You need to be here, in the midst, interacting with people.”
As of Thursday afternoon, Lewin-Tankel remains in critical condition in the intensive care unit.