Cops on Sac's Homeless Beat Work to Earn Trust

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(Sacramento, CA)
Monday, March 23, 2009

This week, the Sacramento City Council will vote on whether to relocate the 150 homeless people living in tents along the American River.  The strategy includes a mix of increasing shelter space and leasing permanent housing.  If approved, police will soon tell “tent city” residents to pack up and move.  That task will largely fall to a pair of cops the homeless call “Batman” and “Robin.”  In fact, there's a unique relationship between the homeless and their two favorite police officers.

Mark Zoulas and Mike Cooper don’t wear capes or masks.  They’re not even crusaders.  So why Batman and Robin?  Well the way Officer Zoulas – er, Batman – tells it, they finally found out from a homeless man one day.
Zoulas: “He goes, they call you that because we all know, whatever we’re doing, if we look up and we happen to see one of you, you’d better look around – because you know the other one is right there.  You are not alone.” 
Like this one time, Zoulas says, they had to arrest a guy with felony warrants living under a bridge.  Zoulas walked up to him …
Zoulas: “And he looks up at me and he gets a big smile on his face and he goes, where’s your partner, is he sick today or is he standing right behind me?” 
Sure enough, Officer Cooper – that’s Robin, of course – was right behind him.  The guy was so surprised, Zoulas says, he let out a shriek.
Zoulas: “And he goes, oh my god, I thought you were lying.” 
In fact, Zoulas and Cooper are almost never alone.  They’ve worked the Sac PD’s homeless beat together for over a decade.  And lately, they’ve spent a lot of time at the “tent city” area known as the “Wasteland” along the American River. 
Zoulas is older, more talkative and half a head taller, and Cooper is quieter, with a little less hair.  But they share the same sense of humor, and slightly stocky build.  They even have similar mustaches and buzz cuts.  And they’ve both embraced their nicknames.  Zoulas wears a watch his girlfriend gave him, with a Batman logo on it.  Cooper, alas, isn’t so lucky.
Cooper: “Here’s the sad part – there’s almost nothing with Robin on it!  You can get a lunch pail with Batman and Robin, but nothing with just Robin.” 
But what’s most remarkable about these two veteran cops isn’t their nicknames, it’s the level of trust they’ve built with Sacramento’s homeless population.
Eric: “We have a pretty good rapport with Cooper and Zoulas.  As long as we don’t hurt nobody, they don’t mess with us much.” 
That’s a Wasteland resident named Eric.
Eric: “They treat us with respect.  I personally treat them as good friends.  I went to church with them.  They brought us Christmas presents and we got them Christmas presents.” 
The reason for this is simple, Eric and other residents say.  When it comes to minor crimes, like a stolen bike, Zoulas and Cooper let them govern – and police – themselves.
Eric: “There’s some things that they allow us to handle it our own way.”
Ben: “How?”
Eric: “Have a talk with them.”
Ben: “With several people standing behind you glaring at them?”
Eric: “Yeah, yeah, that would be it. (laughs)  Talk to them and get them to see it your way.”
And when something bigger comes up, like a beating or robbery?  That’s when, as Zoulas says, the cops and homeless work together.
Zoulas:“A lot of times, people come out of state prison and they’re on parole, and they’re not gonna fly right, and they would come here.  And when they do, the people here – at some point – will tip us off to that, and we’ll remove them.” 
Zoulas uses the metaphor of keeping the wolves away from the sheep – and out of the surrounding neighborhood.  It’s like everyone out there’s a source, he says – but not a tattletale.
Homeless Person: “Sup Batman?”
Zoulas: “How you doing?”
As the partners drove past the tents last week, a lot of people stopped to wave hello.  Some even came up to the police car to talk.
Homeless Person: “I don’t feel so good, dude, I’ve been sicker than …”
Zoulas: “Just stay in and have some lunch today and relax for a while.”
That’s why Zoulas is glad that he and his partner will be out on the front lines when it’s time to tell Wasteland residents to pack their tents up.
Zoulas: “Who better to tell than to someone that they know and they trust, because they’ll listen to us.  It’s not an immediate confrontation.  They don’t like it; they’ll vent; they’ll get ugly, and we know that, and we know it’s not us.  We let ’em blow off some steam and then they come back down and we try to steer them to whatever’s the correct answer for them.” 
That’s a conversation Officers Zoulas and Cooper will probably need to have soon.  The city council will vote on whether to start relocating the “tent city” residents at a special meeting Tuesday afternoon.