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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
Video by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego