Ride-Along Tales from the Tenderloin

Ride-Along Tales from the Tenderloin

Although aware of the great differences between policing big cities in the Netherlands and the United States, experiencing these differences in real life during a ride-along with the SFPD was more powerful than any article or book could describe.

With discretionary decision-making and profiling within law enforcement as my research focus, I couldn’t let my research stay at UC Hastings pass by without trying to get a ride-along with the SFPD. After filling out the necessary paperwork explaining the scope of my research, I received a phone call two weeks ago with the message that I was granted one ride-along. When I was asked which district had my preference, I was quick to respond “The Tenderloin district”. As I described in my previous blog, my current “hood” is rather intriguing in a high-crime-drugs-and-homeless kind of way and I wanted to use this opportunity to get an even closer look into police-citizen interactions in what is known to be the West Coast’s largest open-air drug market. During the 8-hour shift I was riding with a highly experienced and knowledgeable officer who had been working in the police force for 18 years, during which period he spent a great amount of time as an undercover Narcotics officer in high crime other parts of San Francisco. The Tenderloin district had been his home turf for the past three years. After getting me my protective gear, we stepped into the police SUV to start patrolling the area.

Setting the Stage

The Tenderloin is an interesting area if you look at its population. What is often forgotten, is that the Tenderloin houses many hardworking immigrant families who in their struggle to make ends meet cannot afford to live elsewhere in the #2 most expensive city of the US. Besides these families and housing most of the city’s homeless, the Tenderloin is also home to most of the city’s mentally ill, most sex offenders and large numbers of parolees and people who are on probation. Most of them, if not homeless, live in so-called Single Housing Occupancies (SRO’s) also known as the Tenderloins many “hotels”. The SRO’s are notorious breeding grounds for crime, drug abuse, prostitution and violence. On a regular basis people are found dead in their rooms due to an overdose, murder or suicide.

Pill Hill, the Vault and Chipmunks

While patrolling we had to drive with both windows open, in order to hear and see as much as possible and, in case of gun fire, to better identify the location of the shooting. The officer told me a lot about the drug market in the Tenderloin and how there is something for everyone. The growing market for prescription drugs is concentrated at the corner of Leavenworth and Golden Gate, also known as “Pill Hill”, whereas Crack is best to be bought at the corner of Turk and Taylor. Besides these, Methamphetamine, Heroine and probably any other drug one can think of are accessible. At the time of the ride-along, as at basically any time in the Tenderloin, the streets were crowded with people. Other than the addicts who were openly smoking crack or shooting up drugs, it wasn’t always clear what people were doing, most of them seemed to be “just hanging out”. But, as my guide for the ride told me, there were clearly visible patterns with regard to who was doing what, and who the dealers and who the buyers were. In order to keep track of changes in these patterns, it isn’t uncommon for SFPD officers to observe the street activity from the rooftops of the many buildings in the area. These kinds of observations taught them that the drug dealers in the Tenderloin are mostly women, since they are able to securely carry large parts of crack and cocaine in the private parts of their body, also known as “The Vault”. Drugs are sold directly from the Vault and buyers are required to put the drugs in their mouth after payment. The puffy cheeks resulting from this action led the buyers being nicknamed Chipmunks.

Investing in social relationships

What was interesting to see was not only that no one – the dealers, the users, nor the Chipmunks – seemed to be very secretive about their actions, but also that many people hanging out on the streets seemed to know the officer I was riding with. They would greet him by yelling his name and waving, but they also actively engaged in conversation with him, often joking around a bit. When I asked the police officer about this, he said: “You’re not just a cop out here. Being a good cop, you are also part medic, part lawyer, part psychiatrist and part superhero. Since we’re clearly not going to win the ‘War on Drugs’ you have to be smart rather than tough.” By investing in somewhat social relationships with the neighbourhoods many eclectic characters, whether they’re drug dealers or drug users, one could obtain valuable information on important – often potentially violent – changes in the drug scene. On top of that, being on somewhat oddly friendly terms with some of these characters might come in handy in times of violence or riots. Personally I had the feeling that the officer had a very realistic take on the toxic situation in the Tenderloin. The drugs are present in such large amounts as are the people willing to buy them, that it seems quite a challenge to break through this cycle from the bottom up by targeting the users and the low level dealers. Since the big suppliers and manufacturers are not in the Tenderloin, I felt – but that is my observation – that a big part of policing in the Tenderloin has to do with harm reduction, mostly preventing violent drug-related outbursts.

Seeing the law in action

Obviously, this blog reflects my personal experience of one ride-along with one particular police sergeant in one specific neighbourhood and can – and should - therefore not be seen as representative for policing in the Tenderloin or in San Francisco. Nevertheless, the importance of these one-time field trips for scholars of all disciplines should not be underestimated. Even if you are not an empiricist and collecting field data is not part of your research, a single experience can help you get a better grasp and understanding of, or might even shine a completely different light upon, the reality of processes or structures you have been studying from the books and therewith help you to further sharpen your research questions and analyses. It surely helped me further think through some ideas for the VIDI research grant proposal I am writing. So let the black and white “law in the books” rest for a day to explore the multiple shades of grey the “law in action” consists of.



Hi Gabry,

Thanks for your comment! I definitely think I got a unique perspective on policing and especially policing in this neighborhood by talking to this particular officer. Due to his great experience in not just "regular" policing but also undercover operations, he had a very realistic notion of the dynamics in drug-ridden areas. He knew how to play along, without getting played and how to be respected without actively pursuing it. We did talk about this particular matter and he was concerned about some of the new rookies coming in. According to him, the fact that new generations of cops are raised in a time in which most communication takes place via email, text or app leads to new generations who are not used to nor comfortable with true social interaction or small talk. Whereas it is precisely this what makes one street-wise, well-informed and well-respected. As research has shown repeatedly, following the procedural justice theory, besides acting, communication is key to good policing.

I am not sure whether I completely answered your question, but this seemed relevant to mention!



Hi Maart!
Interesting experience you have had, thanks for sharing. I wonder....do you think the officer who took you along is an exception in his views and behavior?


Maert, wat een goed stuk en wat een ervaring! Je hebt vast nog veel meer hierover te vertellen. Misschien iets voor jou om een boek te schrijven over die 'multiple shades of grey'! Ik kijk uit naar je volgende blog! Liefs

Add a comment