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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

The Fight To Save Young Lives In San Diego’s Inner City

Audio

There are close to 90 documented gangs in the City of San Diego. More than half of those gangs are in the mid-city and south eastern communities. In the first part of an ongoing KPBS series called San Diego Gang Stories, we focus on how police and residents in these neighborhoods are conducting curfew sweeps to save young lives.

SPECIAL COVERAGE

San Diego Gang Stories

— There are close to 90 documented gangs in the city of San Diego. More than half of those gangs are in the mid-city and south eastern communities. In the first part of an ongoing KPBS series called San Diego Gang Stories, we focus on how police and residents in these neighborhoods are conducting curfew sweeps to save young lives.

It's 10:30 p.m. in Lincoln Park, a neighborhood in southeast San Diego. The streets are deceivingly calm. Within a matter of minutes, four police cars streak by, each heading in a different direction.

This is the neighborhood that 18-year-old Jasmin Settles calls home.

“My dad, he was in a gang, and my sister and my brothers are all in gangs,” Settles said.

Settles is now trying to cut ties from her family. She drives past a transit stop and park where gang members are known to hang out.

“My dad is from a crip gang,” Settles said. “Growing up, I hung around here. My family hung out here with all the gang friends. They weren’t my blood family, but my gang family.”

Settles’ sweet face doesn't reflect her tough childhood – rival gang members beating down her front door, and drive-by shootings intended for her family.

Settles found herself in handcuffs about a year ago, but her crime wasn't gang-related. She was hanging out with her friends past the city’s curfew.

Police are now conducting monthly curfew sweeps in southeast and mid-city neighborhoods. They're arresting young people who are out on the streets past 10 p.m.

Police say they want to prevent kids from becoming victims of the kind of gang violence Settles witnessed as a child.

Officers say most juvenile homicides take place in the evening hours in this community. It's also when gangs commit other violent crimes.

Joni Antevero is a community volunteer who takes part in the community curfew sweeps. She’s also helping Settles distance herself from the gang lifestyle.

Antevero said the curfew sweeps began about a year ago when the community was tired burying young people.

“Today's kids are ruthless. There's no value for life,” Antevero said. “It's a badge of honor for (gang members to randomly shoot people). It's like an initiation thing. They can move up a level (in the gang) if they go out and shoot.”

San Diego Police Department’s Gang Unit says there are 51 known gangs just in the mid-city and southeast areas alone. Two of the city’s largest and most violent gangs are rivals: Lincoln Park and Skyline.

That's why residents believe getting kids off the streets is part of the solution.

Police captain Lawrence McKinney recently discussed the power of curfew sweeps at a gang summit held at the University of San Diego.

He said since the sweeps, there's been an 80 percent drop in juvenile homicides in the southeast and mid city. That's reflected in the drop in the overall violent crime rate in San Diego.

McKinney said many of the kids who are picked up in the sweeps are affiliated with gangs.

The kids who are picked up are connected with social services agencies, community groups and churches that show them there’s a better way of life.

McKinney said he's picked up kids as young as 7 years old.

“This is the crux of what the curfew sweeps have become about. Finding out why is that 7-year-old on the street at two in the morning. What is going on in the home?” McKinney said.

The American Civil Liberties Union and some criminal defense attorneys argue curfew sweeps criminalize youth behavior, and infringe on the rights of parents and their children.

They believe curfew sweeps shift violence to a different part of the day. Others believe there are more innovative approaches to keeping kids off the streets instead of arresting them.

But Tosha Williamson disagrees. Williamson helps console families who’ve lost loved ones due to violence.

She said curfew sweeps save lives. She points to the recent murder of a 15-year-old girl in Clairemont who was gunned down at a park late at night.

“Her mom thought she was in the bed asleep. But she was on the grass dead,” Williamson said. “Homicides happen in every city. There is no barrier to who is going to die. And if curfew sweeps are what it takes to make sure kids are safe, then that's what we need to do because I am tired of burying kids.”

Police have conducted 26 curfew sweeps in southeast and mid city over the past year. The strategy is now catching the attention of other neighborhoods in San Diego County that are also struggling with gang violence.

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