Two decades ago, public housing in San Francisco was so dangerous that when police officers received a call from somewhere like the Geneva Towers, they would sometimes refuse to respond.
“People would throw everything from chairs to toilets down at you from 12 stories up,” retired Sgt. Michael Slade recalled recently. “It was ugly.”
Faced with that kind of hostility toward law enforcement, Slade — who at the time was a sergeant for the Police Department’s public-housing task force — helped bring in a secret weapon.
And so began Operation Dream, in which police officers visit public housing in The City to hand out gifts. This year marks the program’s 20th anniversary, and unfortunately one of its most trying in terms of its intended purpose.
Operation Dream offers many benefits to neighborhoods, not the least of which is being an early example of a central tenet of modern law enforcement: community policing.
“One of the first bureaucracies you run in to as a young person is the police,” said Slade, who retired in 2011 after 33 years in the Police Department and now serves as Operation Dream’s board president. “We’d rather it be a positive contact than a negative one.”
A San Francisco native who lived in public housing in Hunters Point as a child, Slade remembers one particular Christmas when his unit received a call that crackheads had broken in to a community room in the complex not far from where he grew up and made off with 300 toys intended for low-income kids.
“They said, ‘Can you come up here and take a report?’” Slade said. “We said, ‘Yeah, but there’s got to be more that we can do.’”
A quick call to firefighters in San Mateo County who had just finished a toy drive netted replacement toys and then some: 1,500 toys, enough to replace the stolen gifts and provide Christmas presents for kids in other public-housing complexes in San Francisco.
Along with footballs and basketballs and teddy bears and dolls, the cops also handed out turkeys and other food. The response was so positive that it became an annual tradition. Just this weekend, toy-toting cops paid a visit to the Sunnydale and Alice Griffith housing complexes.
Crime in the past two decades has plummeted in San Francisco and the nation as a whole, but building relationships between low-income populations and police forces is still important.
“The kids are able to look past the uniform,” said Officer Gayla Bunton, who serves as the school liaison officer for the Northern Police Station, which encompasses the Western Addition. And it lasts beyond the holidays.
“It’s a real bonding moment,” she said. “It’s not like we just hand them a toy and then never see them again.”
Yet despite a healthy economy in The City, Operation Dream has shrunk steadily in recent years.
At its peak, the program handed out 20,000 gifts a year, Slade said. That number slid to 12,000 to 15,000 over most of the past decade, but this year fell to 6,000.
Some of the regular fundraisers that helped boost numbers simply do not happen anymore, such as the donation barrels at 49ers games at Candlestick Park.
That tradition did not follow the Niners south to Santa Clara and Levi’s Stadium, though the team still made a generous donation to the program.
Donations like that and others will help provide kids with jackets or some new clothes, or meals for residents who have no children.
“It’s about getting help through the gaps in life,” said Lt. Troy Dangerfield, who has taken a lead role in the program. “That’s what public housing does.”
Help build a dream
Paltry funds made the Operation Dream toy giveaway this year the smallest in years. To make next year better, you can mail a tax-deductible donation to Operation Dream, 659 Wyandotte Ave., Daly City, CA 94014. Or call the Office of Community Engagement at (415) 734-3342 to contribute.