[Hpn] "There's no law against being homeless." but that doesn't stop
Fri, 08 Dec 2000 15:19:44 -0700
I suppose no cops betrays himself as a brutal thug with a reporter in tow,
but this is one of the purest examples of pro-cop quality-of-life propaganda
I've seen in some time.
Mission cop builds bridges while keeping parks peaceful
By Hank Sims
Special to the Examiner
Officer Steve Thoma of the San Francisco Police Department's Mission
Division has become a kind of maestro of the 914 -- police parlance for "man
down," itself a euphemism for illegal camping on private or city property.
He makes his rounds every morning, usually calling on each of the division's
17 parks as well as a few doorways and carports. This morning, his first
stop is Eureka Valley Park, a perpetually popular dormitory for the city's
He pulls to the curb, logs his location into the on-board computer and
surveys the scene. "Kind of a slow day," he says. Only five or so campers
adorn the concrete patio adjoining the park community center: a couple of
obvious veterans and a few young faces.
He nudges a bunched-up sleeping bag. "Time to go," he says, and presently a
young woman's head emerges from the pile, mumbling, "OK." Thoma's demeanor
is that of a concerned parent, apologetic for having to enforce the rules
but firm in the conviction that they must be enforced.
Thoma, SFPD's officer of the month for November, is charged with patrolling
the division's parks, becoming a liaison between the department and the
community. Problems within a community are often first felt in its public
places -- too often homes for the homeless, or offices for drug dealers --
and those who patrol them answer to the families who live nearby.
Thoma is an integral feature of the public face of Mission station, an
institution that has been trying to improve its relations with the community
it serves. A 10-year veteran of the Mission division, Thoma is one of the
few who can still recognize the changing neighborhood as a community.
"Steve Thoma is an officer who knows how to treat people with respect," says
Dave Krohn, caretaker of the Mission Playground. "This park has turned
around 180 degrees from the gang days, and he's a big part of the reason
In addition to his work in the parks, Thoma also heads of many of the
community-outreach programs that Mission station sponsors -- summer work
programs for kids and giveaways of pumpkins, turkeys and toys.
Rita Alviar, director of the Mission Education Project, is delighted with
the changes she sees in the police department. At her suggestion, new
precinct captain Ron Roth, who speaks both English and Spanish, has started
to hold regular meetings with the community at her offices on 24th and Treat
"The people here are starting to meet the police. They're not just seeing
them driving down the streets -- they're talking to them, the kids are
getting to know their names," she says.
"It's working out very, very well. The parents and even the kids are
starting to see that the police are real human beings. And the police are
very responsive and responsible."
Samantha Liapes, director of Bay Area PoliceWatch, sees things differently.
"The community-policing programs are the way to justifying increased police
presence and, with that, increased police harassment and abuse, without
increased accountability," she says.
"The data that we have reveals an increase of police presence in the
district that appears to be related to the rapid gentrification and
displacement of longtime, low-income residents in the area."
SFPD public information Officer Jim Diegnan disagrees. "That's absolutely
untrue," he says. "The Mission community embraces community policing.
Community policing increases the flow of information between the Police
Department and the community, and the Mission district embraces that."
Another 914 blinks across Thoma's computer -- a man is sleeping in a
driveway on San Jose Street. Thoma radios the dispatcher he's taking the
case. He responded to a similar call a few weeks ago at the same address.
Getting out of the car, he recognizes the man from the earlier call. He goes
into his standard 914 routine, this time running the sleeper's name through
the department's computer and telling him that there will be no more
A couple of years ago, Thoma says, it would have been handled differently.
Things were a bit rougher back then.
"The idea was that you were enforcing the law," he says. "It would have been
more like: 'Hey, buddy! You're breaking the law! Get out of here!' "
Nowadays, the city's permissive attitude has permeated its police force, and
Thoma thinks that because of it, the SFPD is not only a progressive
department but also a strong one that sets standards for the rest of the
"Other departments see what we're doing here, and then -- five years down
the line -- they fall into place," he says.
"People see someone they don't like the look of in a park, and they call me
saying, 'Get them out of here!'
"I say 'What have they done?'
"'Well, look at them! They're filthy!'
"I have to tell them, 'Sorry, they haven't committed a crime.' There's no
law against being homeless."
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107,
this material is distributed without charge or profit
to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this type of information for
non-profit research and educational purposes only.**
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