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Image Problem 

Why have SFPD Chief Heather Fong and Mayor Gavin Newsom pursued an overblown pseudo-scandal when there’s so much else on the department’s plate?

Wednesday, Jan 3 2007
If Andrew Cohen were to direct a drama based on his life, it would probably go something like this:

In Act 1 we get to know Cohen, a hardworking cop who helps the San Francisco Police Department burnish its image by producing a string of promotional videos. Baldheaded and clean-shaven with pale gray-green eyes, Cohen is bright, well liked, and dedicated to his job.

In Act 2 Cohen finds himself suddenly mired in controversy for producing a spoof video featuring his fellow cops goofing off, while on duty and in uniform, in a series of sophomoric Reno 911-esque skits. The mayor and police chief, who evidently do not share Cohen's sense of humor, quickly condemn the video as "sexist," "racist," "homophobic," "despicable," "offensive," and "insensitive" during a widely covered press conference, and announce Cohen's immediate suspension without pay. Two dozen other officers are quickly suspended as well, and things look grim. Real grim.

Ironically, our main character, the guy who devoted years to improving the public's perception of the SFPD, has become the department's No. 1 PR problem.

In Act 3, however, Cohen rebounds. Pissed off at what he sees as betrayal by police brass, he spearheads a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the department, arguing that he and his colleagues have been defamed and unfairly punished. He shares his side of the story with SF Weekly and lets the world know that he's not the villainous cretin his bosses have portrayed him to be. After much heartache, Cohen manages, improbably, to salvage his career and, indeed, his life. Cue the triumphal music and roll credits.

Back in the real world, of course, the final act of Cohen's drama hasn't yet concluded, and at this point, roughly a year after the officer's name first hit the headlines, there's a good chance he'll be exiled from the SFPD and branded a pariah.

In late November, after an epic, no-stone-unturned investigation by detectives with the SFPD's internal affairs unit (called the Management Control Division), Chief Heather Fong unveiled formal disciplinary charges against Cohen and six other officers, which could lead to their permanent expulsion from the force, as well as lesser charges against 28 other cops. The department has also shuffled at least eight officers out of the Bayview Station and into desk jobs.

Undoubtedly, many San Franciscans who remember the videos — or what they've heard about the clips — will cheer should Cohen and the others get the boot, assuming the department has rid itself of a bunch of neanderthals who goofed around on the job while Bayview-Hunters Point burned.

The truth, however, isn't so clear-cut.

Although Chief Fong and Mayor Gavin Newsom gave the citizenry the impression that sheet-wearing Klansmen had somehow taken over the cop shop in the heart of the city's largest African-American neighborhood, in reality the officers who appeared in the videos look like the panelists at a college symposium on multiculturalism — they're black, white, Latino, and Asian-American. At least three are women.

When you speak to the cops at the core of the scandal — as SF Weekly did in a series of exclusive interviews, the first granted since the disciplinary charges came down — the allegations made by the chief and the mayor begin to look dubious, or at the very least overblown. Sure, the officers probably transgressed departmental rules, wasted taxpayer dollars, and put together a collection of tasteless skits that aren't all that funny, but Cohen and his co-workers are anything but a bunch of despicable racists.

"We've been thrown to the wolves," says Cohen, who is banned from carrying his pistol or having any contact with the public and is stuck copying, filing, and shredding SFPD paperwork.

A year after the scandal erupted, its residue lingers. By stuffing Cohen and numerous other officers into desk jobs, the chief has thinned the ranks of beat cops at a time when the department, short several hundred officers, is struggling to lower a booming homicide rate and rein in overtime costs, which swelled to a contemporary record of $18.2 million in fiscal year 2005-2006.

And Chief Fong's decision to bash Cohen and company in an ultrapublic forum has not gone over well with frontline cops throughout the department, eroding morale and fermenting dissatisfaction with the top brass, according to SFPD insiders.

To be sure, the 40-year-old Cohen, who describes himself as a "liberal Berkeley guy," isn't your average cop. Before joining the force he owned a Top Dog restaurant in Oakland and toiled as a video editor at a video production house not far from S.F.'s Hall of Justice. Inspired by a sister who took a job with the Berkeley Police Department, Cohen signed on with the SFPD at age 29.

Early in his career with the SFPD, Cohen patrolled the Tenderloin, known for its drugs, prostitutes, and poverty, where, he says, he encountered an abundance of hostility toward San Francisco's finest. At first he wondered why people were "yelling" and "sneering" at him, but in time he "realized it wasn't me, it was the uniform." The populace, he suggests, viewed him as an emotionless arm of the state, not a human being.

He created a humorous persona to get through to people: MC Powder, the rapping cop. (The name derived from his resemblance — according to one Tenderloin resident — to the lead character in Powder, a 1995 movie centered on the adventures of a baldheaded albino adolescent with mysterious powers.) A former DJ and longtime hip-hop aficionado, Cohen eventually released four CDs as MC Powder, hawking them by word of mouth and over the Web — titles include Powder to the People: Officer X and Knowledge Is Powder.

Though Cohen says he made "many fine arrests" while on the streets, he clearly takes a somewhat unorthodox approach to policing. As he puts it, "A lot of cops say, 'Let's go out there and pull a blue card'" — make a felony arrest. "My thought is always, 'How can we go out there and change somebody's life? How can I change the gap between the community and police?'"

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