Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Inside the SFPD: the Bayview

This is mostly a local issue, possibly of little interest to my international readers, but I think it deals with some broader issues that are applicable well outside the City and County of San Francisco.

A few weeks ago, San Francisco Police Officer Andrew Cohen made a "comedy video" (his description) originally intended for the Christmas party at the Bayview police station. Included in the video were some outtakes ("bloopers," if you will) from Cohen's documentary Inside the SFPD: the Bayview, as well as some staged gags about the life and work of police officers in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city.

The Bayview district, located in the southeast corner of the city, often feels like the Land Time Forgot. Most San Franciscans only venture there on the way to a ball game at Candlestick, or in a last-minute dash to mail a tax return before midnight. Most of the news we hear, even within the same city, is about gang violence, drug-dealing turf wars, and homicides. Indeed, the homicide rate just in the Bayview rivals that of many good-sized cities. And yet, many of the police officers who patrol the neighborhood have volunteered for that assignment. Inside profiles the officers and the neighborhood, and clearly makes the case that many of the residents support the work of the police, but they are afraid of retaliation if they speak out against the violent elements.

I've only seen a few fragments of the "comedy video" which generated so much controversy and led to the suspension of two dozen officers. As I understand it, the video contained a number of inside jokes for the specific group of officers to whom it was originally going to be shown, including some staged scenes of interactions between officers and citizens in the neighborhood. The comedy video was rejected for use at the holiday party because of some of those scenes, so Officer Cohen made it available on his web site. From there, it went public, reaching many people who did not understand the context of the inside jokes and who saw the staged scenes as incorporating many insensitive stereotypical portrayals of ethnic minorities, gay people, and homeless people. Some of the scenes I've seen on television were indeed tacky, and, given the reaction, it is certainly clear in 20/20 hindsight that the "comedy video" should never have been released in any form. However, there is at least a silver lining to the controversy: it has drawn attention to the problems of the Bayview, including the problems of policing the Bayview.

The challenge is for San Francisco to keep the focus on improving conditions for the citizens and the officers patrolling the Bayview, rather than on the controversial "comedy video." To that end, I support shifting the focus onto the positive portrayal of dedicated officers patrolling in a neighborhood about which they care deeply. Officer Cohen is making Inside available to churches and other community groups; I hope they will take him up on that offer, and use the spotlight this controversy has shed on the Bayview to start a dialog with all of San Francisco about how to improve conditions in a neglected corner of our city. Inside the SFPD: the Bayview has aired on KRON, channel 4; if it airs again, I recommend it to your TiVo.