Oped: Community Policing, ‘Great Cheese Robbery’ bring Hope during tumultuous week

My husband and I now jokingly refer to our 4th of July encounter with the police as “The Great Cheese Robbery.” Giving it a light-hearted spin was a good way to alleviate our kids’ worry – so that’s how it was spun.

In light of recent heartbreaking events and ensuing discussions, I thought I would share our story. I recognize it’s just one story, one experience.

We were in San Francisco for a couple of days – a quick “no kids” getaway. We were in North Beach (Little Italy) After a long, holiday walk around the city, we stopped at crowded Tony’s Pizza for a late lunch.

Afterward we decided to stop at a small store a block over to grab a few things. This is where things got interesting… AND nerve-wrecking.

As we entered I noticed a man to my right. I looked at him and smiled. He seemed to look through me, with little expression. I then smiled and said hello to the owner behind the counter. He gave me a quick smile, a nod and went back to looking across the store in the man’s direction.

I headed to the back of the store in search of a bottle of wine. A minute later my husband calmly grabbed my arm and directed me behind a bread aisle end cap.

We could hear the owner confronting the man at the counter. They were speaking loudly as the owner accused the man of stealing cheese and putting it in his backpack. I am assuming he thought the guy would just hand back the cheese, but that wasn’t the case.

I then ducked down behind the end cap and told my husband I was going to call 911.

Apparently I’ve watched too many cop dramas. I couldn’t see the confrontation while crouching, but I could hear yelling and then a commotion. I became worried about what might happen next – especially with Law & Order episodes flashing quickly through my racing mind.

It felt like it took forever, but I found my phone in my purse, slid it open, entered my pass code, shut off the texts that had popped up from the kids, hit the phone icon, opened the keypad and dialed 911. In reality it probably took 20 seconds, but felt too long.

By this point I could hear the owner wrestle the man to the ground. I was more scared as the 911 operator answered. I explained I was in a store in North Beach and the owner and a man attempting to shoplift were in a physical altercation.

[Here is where I will stop to recognize how well-trained 911 operators are. I’ve never before called 911 for what I deemed to be a true emergency – so I didn’t know the full procedure.]

The operator was a professional. His job was clear – to get information from me in order to get an officer to the scene.

At this point I still wasn’t sure what was going to happen between the two men, but in the back of my mind I was worried about one of them having a weapon.

My husband started walking toward the front door. I signaled him back to my hiding spot. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why he would want to go near their fight. He obliged.

The operator wanted to know where we were. Unfortunately I didn’t know the exact street. I told him we were in a small store a block from Tony’s, which is super popular so I hoped they could look up our general location. I remember apologizing for being a tourist and not knowing the exact street or store where I was.

By then the accused cheese shoplifter and store owner were done fighting on the sidewalk. We could walk toward the door and I could tell the 911 operator the exact street and name of the store.

I had probably only been on the phone with them for about 90 seconds at this point. Then the 911 operator asked for a description of the man. Question after question. How tall? What is he wearing.? What is his race? What direction did he go? I stared at the man and answered as calmly as I was asked in a quick 10 second time span.

About a minute later I heard sirens. Others on the street directed the officer to the next block where apparently the man was heading.

Then I realized I was alone on the sidewalk. My husband had walked with another witness down the street to show the officers which direction the man went – and identify him if needed.

Another police car arrived. They found the man a couple of blocks away. He resisted and was confrontational according to my husband, struggling with an officer. A nearby pub patron, who apparently knew the officer, even helped subdue the man – slamming him to the hood of the police car.

My husband said at one point during the struggle it looked like the man was reaching for the officer’s gun – but he said the officer didn’t reach for his weapon.

The man was eventually arrested. I gave a report to the officer. I was told I did the right thing – that first instinct to call 911. I told the officer something seemed off when we entered the store and the next time I would follow my gut and turn around and leave.

Note: this was all over cheese. The takeaway? It’s not worth it… for all of us involved… from the store owner to the tourists to the officers.

I walked in on an unfortunate situation that could’ve ended badly. This is the first time in 46 years I have been in such a situation. I know I am lucky. I remember the owner saying “he tried to steal from me.”  I thought, yes, but it was just cheese and you (or my family) could have been hurt.

My last takeaway? I can’t imagine these situations being my job. I am not cut out for it. I will say I am grateful. I witnessed community policing… saw it work… and I believe there is hope.

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  • Thank you for sharing your story with us Dana. It sounds like you did the right thing by calling 911. I’m sure it was very scary for you. We live in pretty crazy times. Just glad you and your Husband are okay. ????????

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