On a recent day, a couple dozen students from San Francisco's Visitacion Valley Elementary School stood on a quiet edge of Pier 39 near the boat docks — away from the hoards of tourists — sizing up a row of fishing poles. Dressed in the crisp blues of the San Francisco Police Department, officer Mazi Sadiki instructed the restless young crowd on the finer points of the reel, how to bait a hook and the telltale signs of a fish on the line.
"Put your finger here and you wait for a fish to bite," Sadiki said to his rapt audience.
An astute young woman wanted further clarification.
"How do I know it's a fish or just my hand shaking?" she asked.
The scene is similar to ones that have played out countless times in the last 60 years since the inception of the San Francisco Police Department's Police Activities League, or PAL, which aims to ease tensions between police and the community while exposing young people to life experiences outside their norm.
"The kids benefit," said retired San Francisco Police Captain Rick Bruce. "They get to know a police officer. They get to see a police officer in a non-confrontational setting."
The program will mark its 60-year anniversary in May, having exposed thousands of kids to activities like fishing, basketball and soccer — all under the tutelage of police officers. The program was founded in May of 1959 by two San Francisco Police officers trying to address what they called "the growing juvenile delinquency problem." Since its inception, the program has morphed into a bridge between the department and the community.
While extending to neighborhoods across the city, the program has set its focus on rough neighborhoods like Bayview-Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley where the cycle of violence often impacts children.
"They get to hang out with me and see I'm just a normal guy like them," said Sadiki, the fishing instructor. "One of the things that kept me out of trouble growing up was sports and fishing."
The program has continued as an undercurrent through periods of turbulent relations between police and the community, with officers serving as coaches for PAL football and basketball teams, even as protests over police conduct exploded in other parts of the city and Bay Area.
"It shows me a different side of them because I've always thought when I was little that police officers were bad," said Visitacion Valley fifth-grader Michaela Tucker, taking a break from fishing. "But then I got to see the police officers go fishing and do stuff that is fun. So I was like, 'They're cool.'"
Following the fishing lesson, which yielded no fish but one crab, the group boarded the Kitty Kat, a whale watching boat from San Francisco Whale Tours, for a jaunt beyond the bay in search of whales.
For many it was the first time on a boat, first time under the Golden Gate Bridge, first time getting seasick. A row of students sat on a bench of the boat heaving into sick bags, which they seemed to abandon and forget once the first whale was spotted.
"Thar she blows," yelled a student as a spout of water preceded the sight of a large whale tail slicing into the ocean.
"I thought, 'Oooh a whale,'" said fifth-grader Husani Cooks. "First time I've seen it in person."
Sadiki gripped the boat's railing, as enraptured by the sight as the students. Next to him another officer debated the best video game systems with another student.
As the whale surfaced again, a chorus of 'ahhhhs' sounded from the boatload of visitors. Its tail seemed to hang in the air before gracefully sliding into the water as a student leaned back on a bench and said to no one in particular, "This is seriously the best day ever."