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In Southeastern San Diego, The Fine Line Between Gang Policing And Gang Behavior

The Fine Line Between Gang Policing and Gang Behavior

Above: Some community members community have likened members of the San Diego Police Department's gang suppression unit to a mob, Stormtroopers or a gang itself. Gang investigations Lt. Keith Lucas says he's aware of the unit's bad reputation and has successfully worked to reduce the number of complaints against his team. Video by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego.

Aired 3/3/14 on KPBS News.

Some community members community have likened members of the San Diego Police Department's gang suppression unit to Stormtroopers or a gang itself.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

As Shelley Zimmerman takes the helm of the San Diego Police Department, she faces a tall order: Regain community trust amid renewed concern over racial profiling, sexual misconduct and officer discipline.

In southeastern San Diego, patching that trust will take a concerted look at gang policing.

Members of the community addressed Zimmerman and former Chief William Lansdowne about police racial profiling at a January hearing of the City Council's public safety committee. Some of the department's biggest offenders, they said, are officers on the street gangs unit.

"The gang suppression team, they roll like a mob," said Lincoln Park Minister Hugh Muhammad at the hearing.

Others in the community have likened the officers to "stormtroopers" or a gang itself — known for sporting sunglasses and shaved heads.

"They roll deep. They roll three, four, five cars," Muhammad said. "They're very disrespectful. Matter of fact, in my opinion, sometimes they think they’re above reproach."

Minister Hugh Muhammad, pictured in his mosque on Logan Avenue, has worked for a decade to patch the relationship between San Diego police and southeastern San Diego. He says the department's gang unit has consistently undermined his efforts by being too aggressive with the community's youth.

The unit's 24 uniformed officers and 18 sergeants and investigators track gangs citywide. But they spend most of their time where gang activity is heaviest. Right now, that's in neighborhoods south of state Route 94.

The unit is made up of three teams: gang suppression officers who patrol areas with known gang activity, graffiti strike force officers who target taggers before they take up more serious crimes and gang investigators who track high-level gang crimes. The unit has one intervention officer who connects youth at risk of joining gangs, or those who want to leave the lifestyle, to social programs.

Gang investigations Lt. Keith Lucas said together the officers make 700 to 1,000 contacts — what law enforcement calls interactions with citizens – each month. He said they include responding to calls for service, assisting officers in neighborhood police divisions and specialty units and acting on intelligence.

A 2004 report to the U.S. Department of Justice by criminal justice researchers at North Carolina State and Florida State universities on gang units in San Diego and Indianapolis suggests the goal of most gang unit contacts is to conduct field interviews. They're considered consensual contacts and don't require wrongdoing for officers to carry out, as long as the individual being stopped participates willingly.

Two San Diego gang officers called field interviews their "bread and butter" in a 2010 issue of Police Magazine. They allow them to gather intelligence on gang patterns or build a case for documenting individuals as gang members. The label allows prosecutors to enhance sentencing on criminal convictions.

While protected by law, the field interview could be what makes the gang unit seem ubiquitous and its approaches an overstep. Community members with and without criminal records report regular contact with the police. Most say they're routinely asked whether they're in a gang.

"They're not stopped every time they come out," Muhammad said. "But I've heard youth say [to gang officers], 'Listen, you know who I am. You stopped me two days ago. Why you stopping me again for walking down the street? I go to work. I have a job. I live in this community.''"

Lucas grew up in Skyline and knows both sides of the coin.

"Having left the ones that could have been done better feeling like I had been marginalized, that's just a horrible feeling. You just feel powerless because no one has explained anything to you and you just learn to live your life that way," Lucas said. "So yeah, I've felt that and I don't want people to feel that way."

The Racial Makeup Of SDPD's Gang Suppression Team*

White: 42 percent

Hispanic: 28 percent

Black: 11 percent

Asian: 11 percent

Middle Eastern: 8 percent

*Does not include gang investigations team, graffiti strike force and gang lieutenants. Source: San Diego Police Department

Lucas works closely with community-based gang intervention programs and gang commissioners.

"We text every day," he said. But Lucas admits his officers are less connected with the community than they should be.

"Because the officers and sergeants are so busy, they don't get to attend [community meetings] as much as we would like them to. We really would like to expose them more to community members because I think that would fill a lot of gaps," Lucas said.

Muhammad, a representative of the Nation of Islam who runs Mosque No. 8 on Logan Avenue, has worked closely with police leadership in downtown and southeastern San Diego over the past decade to mitigate the impacts of their interactions in the community.

He said he helped the department develop its policy for notifying parents when their children are documented as gang members. The practice became state law last year. And he helped push the department to take a stance against curbing – the practice of sitting detainees on the curb instead of inside police cruisers. Curbing is considered unnecessarily degrading, especially in the black community. (Department leaders had to renew their stance earlier this year when residents at town hall meetings said it's still a problem.)

But Muhammad said the gang unit is insulated from that work.

"They're separate outside of the community, so when they come in, the relationship that we've crafted — how we're going to treat the citizens, how we're going to treat our youth — is not followed," Muhammad said.

Lincoln High School teacher Kiki Ochoa has a doctorate. He says police still profile him the way they did when he was a Chula Vista teenager because he doesn't dress the part. "We have culture. We have flavor," Ochoa says of himself and his students. "And a lot of times we're stopped and asked things we shouldn't be asked."

Eduardo "Kiki" Ochoa teaches a social justice class for ninth graders at Lincoln High School. He said many of his students feel police have wrongly profiled them as gang members. He conducts informal surveys asking his students if they've been followed by police or asked whether they're in a gang.

"Maybe a quarter of the boys, if not more, [raise their hands]. I'm trying to be conservative, on the safe side. But I wouldn't be surprised if half," Ochoa said. "I have kids that are making bad choices on our campus but it's a minority. It's a small minority. And to have such a large group of kids who have those types of experiences, it's saddening."

Ochoa said criminalizing youth could impact their psychological development.

"It causes kids to be angry and upset and to be apathetic and to not trust the system or the things that are supposed to protect them," Ochoa said.

Lucas said he's instructed officers to disengage quickly if they find they've stopped a juvenile who isn't a gang member. And when he was promoted to gang lieutenant just over a year ago, Lucas and his leadership began pushing officers to give those they stop the courtesy of explaining their rationale.

"We're going in the right direction and that's because officers are spending a little bit more time talking to people," Lucas said.

Under his watch, professionalism complaints against gang officers represent less than 4 percent of complaints department-wide and less than 2 percent of more serious complaints regarding use of force, arrests and discrimination. The unit makes up a about 2 percent of the entire department's 1,841 sworn staff.

But there is a case for drawing a hard line. National and local research shows the average age for joining a gang is 13. Cynthia Burke, a criminal justice researcher with the San Diego Association of Governments, said once youth do join, the succession of criminal behavior can be rapid.

"They’re doing more burglaries, more violent crimes. It's not just a chance random act," Burke said.

Though gang-related homicides in the city decreased from 16 in 2012 to three last year, Burke said there is concern gang crimes are getting more complex and harder to police.

In January, 24 San Diego gang members were indicted for involvement in a sex-trafficking ring spanning 23 states. In February, 45 San Diego gang members were charged in federal court for distributing methamphetamine, some across state borders. Lucas said his team's investigations contributed to the arrests.

But Burke sat in on the racial profiling hearing where Minister Muhammad railed on the police department's gang unit. She said the community has valid concerns.

"The individuals who are coming forward, their voices mean something and they need to hear that," Burke said. "The police department is committed to maintaining public safety. So how do we do that in a way that everyone feels respected?"

Her advice: "Have faith in each other."

Comments

Avatar for user 'philosopher3000'

philosopher3000 | March 3, 2014 at 10:52 a.m. ― 5 months, 4 weeks ago

Good report, about time people started taking the side of the kids over the authorities.
Until we stop hiring PTSD Soldiers to be Cops and start requiring a college education for all police hires, we will never get rid of the 'Thin Blue Line' gang mentality. Police should be pursuing white collar criminals in suits and ties, in the Downtown high-rise offices, not the poor kids trying to get an education without resources.

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Avatar for user 'progressivebuthey'

progressivebuthey | March 3, 2014 at 1:46 p.m. ― 5 months, 4 weeks ago

give me a break. police should not be beyond reproach, but when we start worrying about gang suppression, we're mexico.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | March 3, 2014 at 3:26 p.m. ― 5 months, 4 weeks ago

The cops here definitely run around like a bunch of armed thugs. There are a lot of punk cops with little man syndrome and they love using physical force, cussing, yelling, and treating people like trash. Cops should not be people that everyone is scared of. They are here to enforce the law, we pay them to do this. We don't pay them to act like robocop.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | March 3, 2014 at 3:27 p.m. ― 5 months, 4 weeks ago

philosopher what laws do you think all of the people in downtown are committing in their office buildings? We have the IRS and SEC for those kinds of criminals, the police need to stop dangerous drivers and car thieves. Not white collar criminals.

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Avatar for user 'Right_sure'

Right_sure | March 3, 2014 at 4:45 p.m. ― 5 months, 4 weeks ago

I gather none of you has ever been out of your lily white neighborhoods...

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Avatar for user 'trolley1'

trolley1 | March 6, 2014 at 3:51 p.m. ― 5 months, 3 weeks ago

There is a difference between doing your job and going beyond! The same is with the Trolley Systems "Crime Suppression Unit", which is a joke. First of all they are not law enforcement officers. Their Code Compliance Unit (which is small) are the same a "Meter Maids" they write, issue citations. State certification in PC832 does mean your a law enforcement officer. They are small about 25 employed by MTS, the rest you see are security guards (which there are about 120 contracted privately). There CSU acts like a bunch of wannabe cops in plain clothes, unmarked SUV's and doing the same shit as SDPD's gang unit. They have the same mentality or worse because they are not LE's. If you look into MTS's information under there Transit Enforcement you'll see "MTS Police" what a joke. They have no police force or sworn officers, their main director or Chief of Police as he likes to be called is Bill Burke a retired pd officer from? SDPD has better quality people with clean backgrounds, many of MTS's CCI's all have shady criminal pasts, they are there playing "cop" because they know they will never be real cops. Only a handful of the CCI's are good and stand up. As with the security guards doing undercover work, if I remember the State of CA defines what they can do and not do. But SDPD turns a blind eye.

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