Christmas Eve, the mid-1980s. San Francisco police respond to a report involving an infant. Outside the Bayview house, a foster home for crack babies, a plastic Santa light blinks on and off.
Inside, standing over the silent crib, the elderly couple who run the place explain: “It simply died,” the man says. “Her mom never even held her.”
When such babies were picked up from the hospital, their drug-addicted mothers were typically offered one last embrace. In this case, said the old man, the mother recoiled, saying, “Why do I want to hold that bitch?”
This is one of the calls that most haunts 44-year police veteran Greg Corrales, one of the department’s most hard-boiled narcotics cops, when asked about his storied career. He doesn’t mention the shoot-outs, the high-profile drug busts or the car chases, all of which Corrales is known for. Instead, he tells the story of the small, brief life that was a victim of The City’s crack epidemic.
A legend in the department as a seasoned street cop whose rough-and-tumble style many looked up to, Corrales, 66, who retired last month, is not known for his tender side.
He’s a cop with a reputation.
He is disdained by some as a cowboy, a loose cannon, a true-believing soldier in America’s decades-old war on drugs. But he’s loved by others as a cop’s cop who shaped an era when “Dirty Harry” and “The Streets of San Francisco” captured some of the reality of a dangerous, gritty city.
One of the longest-serving officers in the department’s history, Corrales’ hard-charging career reads like a history of a city changing over decades and a police force dealing with that transformation.
Corrales, a Mexican-American, joined a force dominated by Irish Catholics as part of the first wave of minorities. A Vietnam vet, he faced off against anti-war protesters and was witness to the very real political violence of the time. He witnessed women enter the ranks — his wife is a retired inspector — during a time of urban decay, and he worked the streets when there were so many crack addicts The City had to build a makeshift jail to house them.
The second half of his career, when political winds shifted toward decriminalization of drugs, he faced the wrath of some of The City’s progressives, whose touchy-feely politics did not mix with his old-school ways.
“He was the last of an era of street cops that went out, did the job and were not caught up in the politics of bureaucracy that unfortunately San Francisco or government seems to wrap around this department,” said Martin Halloran, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association.
The police car sat empty on Waller Street, its officer absent. All that remained were the grim reminders of a violent act: Blood and brain matter filled the black-and-white radio car.
“Someone drove up and shot him in the head, just murdered him,” said Corrales, who came to the scene soon after Officer Richard Radetich was killed.
That incident — in Corrales’ first year as a cop — set the tone for much of the next two decades. In the 1970s, 12 SFPD officers died on duty — a number not seen since the 1930s and not equalled since.
“If someone walked up to your radio car, you had your gun in your hand,” Corrales said.
That year, four of his colleagues were killed on duty. After transferring from his first post at Ingleside Police Station in 1970, the station was raided — a sergeant was murdered and an office worker was shot. In those early years, Park station was blown up, a bomb was planted at Mission station and another station was raided.
He transferred to the department’s notorious tactical unit, the “tac squad.” In the days before SWAT teams, the unit was the department’s strike force, with a national reputation for its riot-quelling abilities. The FBI even asked its commanders to help write a manual on the subject.
“Our duty was to deal with the anti-war demonstrations that were prevalent and often pretty violent. I wasn’t back a year,” he said, referring to his tour in Vietnam, “and here people were burning the American flag.”
But challenges were not just in the streets. The department was a different animal then.
“When Greg first joined the SFPD in late 1969, he was a Mexican- American joining what had mostly been an Irish Catholic organization,” said his former partner Rene La Prevotte.
But being a Latino made him a choice candidate for another duty: undercover narcotics. No one believed white cops who tried to play at being drug dealers, and the few black cops in the force were well-known in the black community, Corrales said.
“In 1969, ‘undercover’ meant infiltrating heroin-shooting galleries and befriending heroin addicts, paranoid speed freaks,” La Prevotte noted.
Corrales stayed undercover for years, and his service as a narcotics officer defined his career.
It’s safe to say Corrales was looking for action when he became a cop in San Francisco.
“It was the biggest department [in the Bay Area], and I thought there would be the most action.”
Vietnam shaped Corrales’ attitudes profoundly, said La Prevotte, who noted that Corrales’ motto was, “Who can kill me?”
“I pretty much had the attitude that, you know, I hope they try me ’cause they’ll regret it,” Corrales said.
To this day, he is known for his outlandish feats in the line of duty: crashing through a window in a Superman T-shirt during a drug bust in Potrero Hill; chasing down and apprehending two armed muggers while on vacation in New Orleans; after being kidnapped while acting as an undercover decoy, managing to cuff and detain his kidnappers, driving their car back to the station house.
Police Chief Greg Suhr, who joined the force in 1981 and the narcotics unit in 1989 when Corrales was its leader, says Corrales was a legend before he became a cop.
“He wore a shoulder holster with a 6-inch, chrome .44 magnum outside his shirt — and that was in uniform,” Suhr said. “He used to wear a Superman shirt under his stuff all the time.”
Corrales even had nicknames: “The Archenemy of Evil,” or simply, “Superman.”
Corrales may have earned high marks in police circles, but no such endearments will come from those who were often at the opposite end of his zeal.
“Everyone knows him for being a hot dog; he was kinda a cowboy,” said medical marijuana advocate Dennis Peron of Corrales’ retirement. “Hallelujah, that’s all I gotta say. It feels like an era has ended.”
Peron first encountered Corrales in 1974, when, during a bust, Corrales’ partners shot Peron in the leg.
In subsequent years the two men continued to cross paths, most often when Corrales was busting Peron. Most recently they came head to head in 1996, when Corrales led a raid on Peron’s Cannabis Buyers’ Club on Market Street.
Corrales was head of The City’s narcotics unit when he busted Peron’s medical marijuana operation, the first of its kind in the state.
The state’s medical marijuana law hadn’t come into effect yet, and Corrales said he felt obliged to bust Peron.
“The guy’s a dope dealer,” he said. “I’m the captain of narcotics. It’s my duty to make drug busts.”
Over the heads of the district attorney, who most likely wouldn’t have prosecuted the case, Corrales took part in a raid led by the state attorney general. What followed was a major uproar, which cost Corrales his position as head of the division.
“I got transferred because I followed the law,” Corrales said.
Peron sees things differently: “In the end, his ideas lost and my ideas won.”
But Corrales has had other marks against him too, including a series of complaints and lawsuits involving accusations of excessive force and cowboy antics.
In 1985, he pulled a U-turn on the Golden Gate Bridge and collided with a car, costing The City $12,500 in a settlement. A few years before that, he received a 10-day discipline after he got drunk and shot his weapon in the air outside the Hall of Justice.
Corrales says the gun went off accidentally.
“I was an active street cop,” Corrales said of the complaints. “Active street cops get sued on occasion.”
In 2003, three off-duty San Francisco cops got into a fight with two civilians on Union Street over a bag of fajitas. As the officer in charge of the initial investigation, Corrales told the media the civilians’ story was “ludicrous.”
The incident eventually turned into a full-blown scandal after District Attorney Terence Hallinan charged nine high-ranking officers, including the chief and Corrales, for their alleged roles in obstructing the investigation. Eventually a judge found the charges baseless and exonerated the officers.
“I said those things and I still believe them,” he said of his comments to the media after the incident.
In his last years on the force, as captain of Park station, Corrales did not slow down. He led busts in Golden Gate Park and wrote a tongue-in-cheek captain’s report each week — eventually toned down — that was popular for its colorful language.
In his May 20 goodbye in the newsletter, he reverted to his old ways.
“After turning in all my gear, I opted to check conditions on Haight Street one last time,” he wrote. “Despite employing my finely honed police instincts for the last time, I was unable to spot any suspicious scoundrels skulking sinisterly. Purveyors of pernicious poison, in possession of passels of The Weed with Roots in Hell were nowhere to be seen. I knew then that I could go home.”
1948: Born in Hayward on April 19
1966-69: Marine Corps, Vietnam
1970-71: Officer, Ingleside district, tactical unit (SWAT)
1972-75: Narcotics bureau and undercover officer
1978-82: Sergeant, inspector and officer narcotic bureau
1983-86: Lieutenant and sergeant, Central and Potrero districts
1987: Court cases over Corrales’ U-turn that caused an injury, shooting outside City Hall
1993-96: Captain, narcotics division
1996: Led a controversial bust on a pot club at the behest of the attorney general. The raid led to his transfer as head of narcotics.
1996-2002: Captain of Ingleside station, auto theft unit and night captain
2000: Ran unsuccessfully for District 7 supervisor
2003: Captain in charge of two officers in Fajitagate, which entailed a violent confrontation between three officers and several civilians over fajitas.
2003: Charged by DA along with current Police Chief Greg Suhr and seven others for obstruction in the Fajitagate scandal. All were found to have done nothing wrong.