Downspiraling through the nine circles of big city bureaucracy

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I have, sitting in front of me, a reporter’s notepad covered in phone numbers. The sight of it irks me.

I’m no fun when I’m irked.

The phone numbers were scrawled there during my search for the arrest information of a drunken driver who injured a Winters boy after a day of fishing with his family. The boy was standing near their truck on Treasure Island when the driver hit it and shoved it into the child, who suffered three skull fractures and a concussion. He ended up in an induced coma.

Normally, getting arrest information from law enforcement is a routine thing. I’ve done it a thousand times, be it police or sheriff, Highway Patrol, whatever — just ask for the PIO (public information officer) and they tell you what you need to know. No big whoop.

Normally. But we aren’t talking about Kansas anymore, Dorothy. We’re talking about San Francisco.

I began with the area CHP, and was bounced along the telephone lines until finally connecting to someone whose English skills were so poor that I wasn’t sure if he could actually understand anything I said. That was merely annoying, and was the best interaction I had all morning.

Mr. English-As-Maybe-A-Fourth-Language referred me to the San Francisco Police Department, and here is where our downspiral into the nine circles of bureaucratic hell begins. Before we begin our descent, consider that every interaction began with its own “For the records department, press 1” telephone labyrinth. Also note that I was on the phone for two hours straight.

So freakin’ irked.

After nearly wearing out my poor li’l pressing finger, a snotty SFPD clerk refused to give me any information because the drunken driver was already charged. I must contact the DA’s office. Press, press, press… this clerk, that clerk, please call this number, press, press, press, and I finally landed with one rather grumpy Jeff Ross, who was exasperated that calls such as this are continually being routed to him. (Note to Jeff: It’s a certain SFPD clerk.) He sent me back to the same person who sent me to him.

She referred me back to the SFPD.

Fabulous.

I pushed a different thread of numbers this time, and eventually ended up with yet another SFPD front desk clerk, even snottier than the first.

I asked to speak to the PIO, a term Ms. Snottypants was entirely unfamiliar with, and informed me that the SFPD doesn’t give out verbal arrest information. I would have to pay for a printed report.

Excuse me, but… WTF?

Seriously, sister? You charge the press for public information?

Yes, she replied, and added, “And you’re not going to get it today, either.”

“Look,” I said in my best I-have-one-nerve-left-so-don’t-get-on-it tone, “An 11 year old boy was severely injured by a drunken driver in your city. In my town, this is a big deal. Could you just find someone who can simply read the arrest information off the report to me, like every other California law enforcement agency I’ve ever dealt with over the past 20 years?”

“No,” she snipped. “Do I need to repeat myself?”

Oh, how fortunate she was that I couldn’t slither through the telephone line, grab her by the hair, yank her to within an inch of my face, and say, “Would you like to rethink your answer?”

Unbelievable.

(Tell me… is everyone in San Francisco a snippy, self-absorbed jerk, or do I just have a peculiar talent for attracting them?)

I decided to call the San Francisco Chronicle newsroom to get the name and number for an actual PIO, and was connected to one Jaxon Van Derbeken. I started explaining my incredulousness over what I was told about paying for arrest reports, and he barked, “Yes, that’s true, we have to pay, so that’s why we don’t report on arrests.”

Wow — two WTFs for the price of one! The SFPD gets away with charging for public information and the Chronicle doesn’t publish this information unless it’s purchased? Dang. If this were Chicago, people would be shrieking “Racket!!!” Moreover, if children are getting run down by drunken drivers and it’s not making it into print, maybe the Chron should consider giving back some of those General Excellence awards. (Side note to Chronicle: The Winters Express scooped you on this drunken driving story. Just sayin’.)

“So, you mean…” I began, still trying to wrap my brain around this, but he cut me off and bellowed, “I don’t time for this!” and… hung up on me!

“Stunned” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Dude. I identified myself as an editor. I don’t care how big your newspaper or your hugely inflated ego are, editor trumps police-beat reporter every time.

So far, far beyond irked.

I emailed one of the Chronicle editors to enlighten him about the behavior of his staff and received a cordial reply and gentle pat on the head, but didn’t get the impression that he was going to yank JVD’s chain anytime soon.

What can you do, really, besides unload all over your Facebook wall? It was there that our Express entertainment correspondent, Kate Laddish, read my rant and then posted a jewel: a Chronicle feature on JVD, declaring him to be one of “The Best of San Francisco.”

Best? Wow. That bar’s set high enough to trip a mouse.

I posted a comment under the story about my experience with their Best, and the only thing that gave me even more satisfaction (besides writing this column) was that I got four “likes” on my comment. Which was the only comment on the story at all.

Moral of story, JVD, you may think you’re a BFD, but on this side of the Bay Bridge, you’re just a footnote in a small-town weekly newspaper editor’s column.

It’s called a reality check.

— Email Debra at debra@wintersexpress.com; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com, www.edebra.com and www.ipinion.us

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  1. Please keep up the good work Debra. We are fortunate to have people like you who still report the truth. Thank you.

  2. Please keep up the good work Debra. We are fortunate to have people like you who still report the truth. Thank you.

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