Noe Valley Voice March 2002

The Return of 'Superman'

By Kathy Dalle-Molle

Since taking over command of Mission Police Station in early January, Captain Greg Corrales, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department, hasn't wasted any time familiarizing himself with the problems facing his busy district, which includes the Inner Mission, the Castro, and the northern half of Noe Valley.

Within days of setting foot in his new office on Valencia Street, Corrales, 53, was meeting with neighborhood groups and merchants, as well as supervisors Mark Leno and Tom Ammiano. In late January, he presided over his first community meeting for the station, attended by a standing-room-only crowd of 80 Mission residents, including city treasurer (and Noe Valley resident) Susan Leal.

While Leal attended simply to welcome Corrales, most people came seeking attention to crime problems plaguing their neighborhood. Several Lexington Street residents, fearing for the safety of their children, asked that something be done about gang activity near their homes. A manager of a residential hotel on Mission Street wanted to let Corrales know about the rampant drug-dealing and homeless problem near her business. A Capp Street resident came to find out what Corrales was going to do about prostitution on her block.

In early February, the Voice sat down for a 45-minute chat with Corrales in which he discussed his new campaign to get drug dealers and prostitutes off the streets, as well as his desire to close the book on his notorious past, which featured more than a hundred citizen complaints during the 1970s and '80s and a 1982 suspension for firing his gun after leaving a bar near the Hall of Justice. He also gave his side to the infamous "Polk Street Sweeps" of 1981, and to the rumor that he wore a Superman costume during the rooftop bust of a Potrero Hill drug dealer in the 1970s.

Corrales, who was born in Hayward and graduated from the University of San Francisco, appears to have mellowed significantly over the past decade. He credits much of the change to his wife of 12 years, Liane, an inspector in the SFPD's Juvenile Division. Corrales and Liane live in the Inner Parkside with their 9-year-old daughter, Samantha. Corrales also has two grown children from a previous marriage -- Greg, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, and Maria, a freshman at U.C. Irvine.

From 1973 to 1981, Corrales lived on 24th Street in Noe Valley. "Like anyone who's ever lived in Noe Valley, I have a special place in my heart for the area," he says. "And no one has to tell me there's a parking problem in Noe Valley."

Residents who'd like to tell him anyway should give him a call at Mission Station at 558-5400 or attend the community meetings held the last Tuesday of the month at 6 p.m. Meanwhile, here are the highlights from our February interview.

Voice: Have you had a chance to spend any time in Noe Valley since joining Mission Station?

Corrales: A couple of weeks ago, I was at the Noe Valley Ministry, which had a show of support for [Angelica and Saif Ataya], the couple who own Noe Market and have been the target of attacks since Sept. 11. I met them and expressed my support and Police Chief [Fred] Lau's support for them.

Voice: Given the size of the Mission District and the array of pressing crime problems, residents and merchants in Noe Valley often worry that their problems might seem minor in comparison and consequently might be overlooked by the police. Do you anticipate being able to have a suitable police presence in Noe Valley?

Corrales: Well, certainly the problems of Noe Valley are different from the problems of the Lower 24th Street Neighborhood Association. But I realize that the things happening in Noe Valley are important to the people who live there. For example, when I was a lieutenant in the Central District, one of the most vocal community groups was the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Association. Believe me, they could be more vocal and more irate about parking problems in their neighborhood than the people living in the Tenderloin were about shootings and drug dealings. Having experienced that, I realized you can't compare people's concerns -- and this is a lesson for all police officers -- that it may not sound like a big problem to the officer, but to that specific community, it's a big problem, and if you can deal with it and improve it, then you're going to improve your stature with that community.

Voice: What about the continued presence of our beat officer Lorraine Lombardo?

Corrales: From what I've seen in the short time I've been here, it's clear that Lorraine has done a very good job and is highly thought of. Barring anything catastrophic, I have told her the beat is hers for as long as I'm here. I want her out on the beat, and she wants to be out on the beat.

Voice: At the Mission Station's police-community meeting on Jan. 29, you said the biggest problems facing the district are drug activity, prostitution, and homelessness. Given your experience as commander of the Narcotics-Vice Division for four years in the 1990s, you're obviously a good fit to deal with those issues. You also said that the first thing you're working on is the drug-dealing. I'm wondering if you could give an overview of the "Buy-Bust" operation you talked about at the meeting.

Corrales: For 20 hours a day, seven days a week for at least four weeks, we will have undercover officers making drug buys while other officers watch from nearby, ready to arrest the sellers. Then at the end of the four weeks, we'll assess the number of buys we're still making and the absence of drug dealers in the area, which should also result in a similar absence of buyers.

Voice: The first day of "Buy-Bust" was this past Saturday [Feb. 2]. How did it go?

Corrales: Over Saturday and Sunday, we arrested 41 dealers for sales of drugs along 16th and Mission streets. Everyone did a great job. Of course, I always think you can get one more....

Voice: What happens after the four weeks are up?

Corrales: If we think that we can cut back on the "Buy-Bust" operation, we may reduce them to three or four times a week. We're not going to stop them, though. If we just stop doing them, within a month we'll be right back where we started.

Voice: What about the prostitution problem? What's being done at this point?

Corrales: We have some officers who are dealing exclusively with prostitution and the pimps. Unfortunately, I can't address the prostitution problem right now the way I will eventually, because my resources are tied up with the drugs. But again, with a sustained effort, I believe we can make a noticeable difference. Certainly, arresting the pimps is the priority, and realistically we're not getting very much prosecution on the prostitutes. But if they continue to break the law and we continue to arrest them every night, then they're going to go where they're not getting arrested every night. They're going to go back to Oakland and Richmond and wherever else they came from.

Voice: Is the problem still primarily along Capp Street?

Corrales: Capp Street, South Van Ness, and Folsom. Before I got here, I thought the prostitution problem in the Mission was Capp Street. I was shocked to learn how out of control it's become and how great the area is that these prostitutes hang out.

Voice: Let's talk about the homeless problem. You said at the community meeting that the homeless problem is the other major issue you've heard a lot about from the residents and merchants you've been talking to. But you also said that the SFPD is fairly limited in what it can do regarding the homeless.

Corrales: In addressing the drug dealers and prostitution problem, basically we can use every law available to us. Unfortunately, with the homeless, we don't have that luxury. And the greatest example is the shopping carts. If we could take shopping carts away -- which don't belong to them -- that would drastically impact the situation. But the public has spoken. They don't want the shopping carts taken, so the public is the boss. We don't take the shopping carts.

Voice: It would improve things because you'd be taking away their possessions?

Corrales: Not so much taking their possessions, but in a sense I guess it is. It's making it more difficult for them to have a mobile lifestyle. And the shopping carts are indisputably somebody else's property. It's not the Police Department's job to solve homelessness. That's a social problem that professionals can't agree on how to solve. But when the homeless start behaving in a way that adversely impacts the public, then the police get called in, and there are just limited things we can do.

When I met with the Shotwell Neighborhood Association, one of the biggest complaints was about human feces left by homeless people. Neighbors walk out of their house and want to walk down the sidewalk, and it's splattered with human feces. The Health Department has told them whatever you do, don't touch it. DPW tells them that their responsibility is the streets, not the sidewalk -- that it's the homeowners' responsibility for the sidewalk. So they don't know what to do.

Soon, I am hoping to get Lieutenant Joe Dutto out here to address the issue. Lieutenant Dutto has been working out at the Park Station for several years and has addressed the terrible homeless problem Haight Street had for a long time. He came up with a program in which he documented the most notorious of the public drunks -- how many times they'd been arrested, the anti-social behavior they exhibited. He's gotten them into court where a judge will tell them, "Okay, based on this, you're going to have to enter this in-house treatment program or you're going to have to go to the county jail." Either way, it gets this major nuisance off the street, and Haight Street is amazingly better than it was a year ago.

Voice: Some Noe Valley residents and merchants have the perception that panhandling and homelessness in the neighborhood is on the rise, particularly along 24th Street. Do you have any suggestions for compassionate ways that residents and merchants can deal with the panhandlers?

Corrales: Some merchants have emphasized not giving money to these panhandlers. They've tried scrip that's good for food or a bed. I think that's probably the most compassionate way of dealing with the situation. If they're not getting money to buy booze and drugs -- and I'm not saying all of them use the money for that, but most of them ... if they're not getting money at 24th and Castro, they're going to go somewhere where they are getting money.

Voice: Your first day on the job at Mission Station, Chronicle columnists Phil Matier and Andy Ross reported that "gay politicos were burning up the phone lines" over Fred Lau's decision to send you here. Matier and Ross also wrote that you are "a particular sore spot with old-time gays," largely because of your involvement in the so-called Polk Street Sweeps of 1981. How are you dealing with this issue? Have you made any attempts to reassure the gay community in the Castro?

Corrales: It's frivolous to try and tell these people that the Polk Street Sweeps never happened (laughs). It's just become part of the legend that the Polk Street Sweeps happened. Accepting that, I've just told everyone from the gay community I've met -- primarily the Castro community -- that they can peruse my track record. I've never had any kind of accusation of homophobia. Any place I've been in a department where there have been gay officers, they are all my supporters now. I've told everyone, "All you have to do is wait and see. Hold me to high standards, put me under close scrutiny. Wait and see if you're satisfied with my job performance, if you're satisfied with my conduct on duty and off." That's the only thing I can ask of them, and everyone who I've talked to has said that's fair enough.

Voice: To be perfectly honest, the Polk Street Sweeps happened long before my time in San Francisco. I'm sure a lot of people reading this interview also won't know much about them. So why don't you explain your position that they never happened.

Corrales: Male prostitution was rampant on Polk Street at the time [in 1981], and Mayor [Dianne] Feinstein called Chief of Police Con Murphy, and said, "I'm getting a lot of complaints from the Polk Street Merchants Association about all this crime. Do something about it."

At that time, I was a sergeant in Narcotics, and Chief Murphy called me into his office and told me they had a problem and he wanted me and my squad to address the problem. I asked the chief, "Are we talking about just drugs or everything-- prostitution, etc?" He said everything. So, in a 10-day period, we made hundreds of arrests, but people use the word "sweeps," and "sweeps" is rounding up a bunch of people all at one time, and it was never anything like that. Of all those arrests we made in 10 days, there was not a police report that had more than three suspects on it. With sweeps, you'd have 50, 60 people's names on one report. But we made a lot of arrests. There was a lot of crime out there, and we addressed the problem vigorously, and then there was a backlash. All those crooks and people looking for drugs were spending money on Polk Street, and pretty soon Polk Street looked like a ghost town and suddenly the merchants decided maybe this wasn't so good after all.

I also think it's important to mention that not one of the arrests we made on Polk Street resulted in a citizen complaint. There was not one lawsuit generated over any of those arrests. It's just that over the years, they've become known as the Polk Street Sweeps, and I've learned that when it comes to some things, what's the point in bringing up the facts? People want to believe certain things.

Voice: Which brings me to my next question, which is about your rather notorious reputation. On the one hand, you're this very decorated officer -- with a Gold Medal of Valor, two silver ones, six bronze, two Police Commission commendations, and the list goes on. On the other hand, there are all these incredible stories about you -- the hundred citizen complaints, Matier and Ross reporting tales of you "washing down .45 bullets with shots of tequila." It's like TV movie-of-the-week stuff.

Corrales: The old colorful image of a big-city narc sergeant. Well, that was great for a narcotics sergeant in the '80s, but if you don't look at the big picture and look down the line.... Fire-breathing might be okay for a narcotics sergeant in the '80s, but do you really want to entrust a busy district station to a fire-breather 20 years later? That's the question.

What was perfectly acceptable for a narcotics sergeant 25 years ago has come back to haunt me since then.

Voice: How so?

Corrales: Things like what Matier and Ross printed. I think it's impeded my progress throughout the department. Of course, it depends on the person. Tony Ribera, when he was chief, looked at my record on the job and put me in the important position of commanding officer of Narcotics. Other people who I've never worked with before, they just hear the stories and choose to believe them.

Voice: One of the more famous stories about you was that you wore a Superman costume to storm a suspect's apartment? Did that really happen?

Corrales: I'll tell you how that one got started (laughs). This was way back in the early '70s. Leon Cooper was a known drug dealer up in the Potrero Hill projects, and he had a gated door and bars on all the windows of his place except the very top window that went into his bedroom. Police had tried serving a number of search warrants on Leon, but invariably before they could get in, he would flush the heroin down the toilet. So the other drug dealers would get arrested and say, "What's going on here? Everybody knows Leon is dealing, and you guys don't arrest Leon." So it became a kind of point of pride. We had to arrest Leon Cooper.

So we got another search warrant for Leon's place, and we decided, okay, we've got to try something different, so the plan was to pull up in a UPS truck with a ladder in the back. We'd jump out, throw the ladder up to the window that didn't have the bars, and one of us would run up the ladder, while the other was demanding entry with a search warrant. Then after a sufficient amount of time had passed and Leon hadn't opened the door, we could force entry. So somebody was going to have to crash through the window, and I was elected. At the time, I was one of the youngest guys around and just out of the Marine Corps. I figured if I was going to crash through the window, I might as well be dressed appropriately, because we were all plainclothes officers.

But I didn't wear a Superman outfit. There was no cape. It was just a Superman T-shirt (laughs). But over the years the story has grown to a full costume with a cape and tights.

Voice: But you seem to have put those kinds of antics behind you. Have you simply mellowed with age?

Corrales: Times change, and one has to change with the times. Certainly, if one aspires to a position of responsibility, one has to act more responsibly. And of course, a good wife makes you toe the line, too. I've been married for 12 years now, and that's been a major, major part in me acting responsibly.

Voice: You've been a member of the SFPD for 32 years, and when we first talked on the phone last month, you said you were "shooting for 50 years." How can you still muster so much energy for the job after all these years?

Corrales: I love it. I love the San Francisco Police Department. I love being around the officers in the Department. I love San Francisco. Three years ago, I was selected for an executive fellowship to the FBI's Safe Streets and Gang Unit in Washington, D.C., and I lived back there for six months. In that setting, I met a lot of people, and invariably when I'd say I'm from the SFPD, their faces would light up and they'd smile and say, "Oh, San Francisco. Jeez, we were there three years ago. We love San Francisco."

I mean, you have to be away from the city to really appreciate how much the rest of the country loves San Francisco. I hope we can work out some compassionate plan on the homeless, or people are going to stop coming to San Francisco when they could go to New Orleans or New York or Washington, D.C., for that matter, and not have to deal with the gauntlet of beggars.