Everyone is complaining about crime in San Francisco, so if you’re one of the people who wears a uniform dedicating you to doing something about that crime, there is a special weight upon your shoulders. The new head of Northern Station, Capt. Joseph Engler, is bringing a positive, collaborative attitude to the challenges of his new post, which serves a diverse grouping of neighborhoods ranging from the Marina to the Western Addition to Japantown.
Engler, a 26-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Force, has had leadership positions in the Muni Division, the SFPD’s Homeland Security Unit’s Operations Center, and the traffic division. He assumed his new role at Northern Station in January 2018. Though he works from Northern Station’s Fillmore Street offices, the Marina Times caught up with him by phone while he was on the other side of the country, attending an executive education program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
You were born on the Northside and you’ve served here in the past. From a policeman’s perspective, what has changed in this area?
Taking the Northern District as a whole, I’ve seen a lot of real improvements and change. I think there’s been a lot of change in neighborhoods closer to City Hall and the lower Haight; I’ve seen a decline in crimes in some of those areas. When I was a young cop, there was open-air drug dealing, especially on lower Haight Street and down on Market Street, and there was active prostitution on Octavia. The neighborhoods [have] come up.
My number-one priority to address has been the auto break-ins. It’s not acceptable; it affects residents, it affects tourists. It’s the most important thing for me to get under control. Though it’s a property crime, it’s completely disruptive around the neighborhood when we have crimes at the Palace of Fine Arts, Japantown, Union Street, Alamo Square. [In] those areas we’re really throwing a lot of resources, whether for beat [officers], undercover, and high visibility patrol, asking the officers to spend their time where the problems are. The problems are not secret. We know where the break-ins are happening. What’s attracting people to the areas is a lot of tourists, a lot of rental cars, a lot of bags in the cars where they’re visible, and I want officers visible in those area.
We’ve asked for the traffic division to help, so there’s been an increase in motorcycle officers in the district. We’ve brought in the Honda Motorcycle cops — on those dirt bikes — on different days of the week; we have pretty good numbers assigned to our district on patrol, doing enforcement.
I’ve been going out and really working with neighborhood groups. We’re pamphleting about this Park Smart campaign, literature about don’t leave stuff in your car where people can look inside and steal valuables; take stuff with them if they don’t want to become victims. And we’re asking people to let us know where the cameras are. There’s a registry with the district attorney [where people can let us know] where the private cameras are. And if they see something suspicious, say something. Call it in. We’ll be very pleasant and nice if we get there and it’s not what it seems.
Recent reports have indicated that many of the auto break-ins are being perpetrated by organized gangs.
It’s a complex problem. If there was just one approach that would work, then we could go just to that one approach. It’s really important to me to manage the morale of the police officers and the community. We really need to work together and partner in the truest sense of the word. We are also saying to the community . . . there’s steps they can take; they can call it in to the police. The more active everybody is, that’s the best strategy.
As far as addressing the laws in place, looking at other parts of the criminal justice system, I’ve been really, really vocal with my own police officers and the community that our role as police officers is to enforce the laws, however we find them, and do a really good job.
What are your other top goals as captain of Northern Station?
There is a program going on right now addressing homeless issues. A unified command has been set up with the different city agencies. Officers from every station have been assigned to report to the Department of Emergency Management every day. So we have police officers, members of the Department of Public Health, and [Public Works] working hand-in-hand with housing advocates and using 311-dispatched calls. So we’re trying to address the homeless issue by getting different players together and get a relief to district [offices], rather than one agency showing up and leaving because the person needed [a different service].
And then I’ve been looking at the 311 information. It’s very important not to wait for the calls for service and to try to get out ahead of some of the complaints about lower-level things. If some of the parks need to be cleaned up, make the calls to the other city agencies to clean up a park. I’m very much into keeping the streets and the open spaces clean, because it attracts other problems when you don’t keep things clean.
How many officers do you have at Northern Station? How many would you like to have so you’d have enough to meet all of your challenges?
I’m asking more of the cops since I’ve arrived; we’re absolutely making sure the foot beats are filled, we’re running a plainclothes beat dealing with the auto break-in issue, and [we’re doing community work on the street]. The expectations are high, so with more officers — I don’t know what the right number is — but with more, I can ensure we hit the mark we’re shooting for.
Overall, police work has become more demanding because the expectations have increased so much; there’s new technology introduced into the profession. The younger officers are very adept at it; they’re carrying smartphones; officers now have body cameras; but there are more expectations of professionalism and being more complete and thorough in everything they touch and do, and in preparing their reports and memorializing the work they do. With increasing demands, the staffing has stayed the same.
You were talking about the homeless problem; your officers are being enforcers of the law, social workers, and bureaucrats networking with other city departments. That’s a lot to ask, and probably not what they were expecting when they envisioned joining the police force.
It’s not a negative. Actually, if you think about it, it’s a great opportunity for us to have really well-rounded problem solvers, because by giving that officer the opportunity to network and find other win-win type of solutions, we get closer to solving problems. But it’s the time factor, because it does take a little more time to actually solve a problem rather than move on to the next problem. A Band-Aid might be a good solution for that day, but you might be going back to that problem in consecutive days because it hasn’t been fixed. The collaborative approach may actually deliver some long-term fixes. Hopefully, the burden will come off if we can get closer to getting some of the homeless issues fixed.
What are you judging yourself by?
The most important metric is feedback from the community itself, because the Northern District has some really active community groups, merchant groups, and there’s some strong stakeholders in how the police are handling the different areas within Northern District. So I’m going to listen.
I’m also going to look at the crime statistics, where the crimes are occurring, and really work at disrupting the patterns of these car break-ins. It’s really important to look at crime patterns and look for reductions in all of the categories.
Number three, and this is an in-house thing, but it’s really important with a young police force to really nurture and train those officers. I have certain expectations to develop those officers, put them in the proper police training — whether it’s a search warrant class or a retrial class, I want to see the officers developed. When you make an investment in the officers, you get some reciprocity.