On any given day, San Francisco police Officer Nicole Jones will receive calls about drug deals in progress, shoplifting problems or concerns about a couple in a violent relationship.
Instead of the information crackling through her radio from central dispatch, it comes through her cell phone — and the callers usually know her name and help pay her phone bill.
Jones, one of two foot patrol officers in Bernal Heights, is part of a pilot program in which merchants provide cell phones to officers assigned to their neighborhoods.
Jones and her colleague, Officer Nathan Bernard, share the phone as well as the beat: Cortland Avenue between Gates and Mission streets, a busy neighborhood strip filled with stores and restaurants. Seven days a week, at least one of the pair is available to any Bernal Heights merchant or resident who calls their phone.
Capt. David Lazar, who oversees the Ingleside Station, came up with the idea earlier this year and approached Darcy Lee of the Bernal Business Alliance.
Ingleside is the only police station where every officer has voicemail and e-mail. But officers don’t have police-issued cell phones because they would be too expensive.
Lee ran with the idea, purchasing the phone and rallying fellow merchants to chip in toward the bill, Jones said.
Lee and other merchants in the Bernal Business Alliance pay $47 a month for the phone, which is under a two-year contract plan.
“It’s a brilliant idea. I like that it’s immediate,” Lee said. “If I have a person that’s drunk in my store and I don’t want to call 911, I call the cell phone and ask the officer to come escort the person out.”
The program was implemented in early August, and Jones estimates she receives about five calls a day. Most are from merchants, but a few are from community members.
“It’s definitely not in lieu of 911,” Jones said. “It’s the phone number to call if something creeps you out and you want a beat officer to check it out.”
Jones has also already received calls containing critical crime-solving information, such as the license plate numbers of drug dealers, she said. In the process, residents have gotten to know her better.
“People think it’s not an immediate issue, they don’t want to waste officers’ time. But that’s our job as beat officer, to figure out how to solve problems in the community,” she said.
Lazar said he would like to expand the program, first implemented in early August, to the three other foot beats in his districts. There are a total of 14 officers on foot patrol in the district, seven of whom are working at any given time.
The program is part of a series of reforms initiated by Ingleside Station, which covers neighborhoods from the tony St. Francis Wood to the Sunnydale housing projects. In March, the station was chosen to become the testing ground for reforms based on a series of studies by the private Police Executive Research Forum on ways to increase the Police Department’s efficiency.
Cell phone numbers
1: Total cell phones for beat cops
3: Foot patrol beats in Ingleside police district
14: Beat cops in Ingleside police district
7: Beat cops on patrol in the district at any given time
Source: San Francisco Police Department