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.”

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Photo by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego
Photo by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego
Minister Hugh Muhammad says the San Diego Police Department's gang unit has consistently acted too aggressively toward 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.”

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.

Photo by Brian Myers
Photo by Brian Myers
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.”

Video by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego

    This article relates to: City Heights, Community, Gang Culture, Neighborhoods, News, Police, Racial Profiling, Share

    Written by Megan Burks

    Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her directly by emailing

    Stephanie Saad Thompson
    Stephanie Saad Thompson

    When I was a reporter, more than 20 years ago, I did a ride-along with the SDPD street gang unit. The Lt. made it clear that between them and the gangs it was a case of "who was more macho," and he had to win. He was not talking about humiliating or intimidating them, but rather earning their respect so everyone behaved themselves. He was open about it and it seemed to be working.

    Cesario Chavez
    Cesario Chavez subscriber

    I'm Hispanic and I'm tired of fools trying to make everything a racial issue. It's a right and wrong issue. You are either a good person or bad. The racial background makes no difference to me as long as they keep my barrio safe and I know the gang unit works to do that.  But to the media it's all about race. guess what fools you ignore the fact that minorities are committing the crimes in minority hoods. Ask Muhammad why the Sureneos are fighting for Assad in Syria?

    Cesario Chavez
    Cesario Chavez subscriber

    @Jim Jones @Cesario Chavez  I'm just a realist, my Gunny once told me I won't back down from anything and he was right. If these people would work on changing the glamorization of the gang culture and stop worrying about the skin color of the gang unit they might actually make a difference. I know enough about the street and from the Corps that you go heavy and go deep to keep your ass alive. Why do these felons think anybody who points out the truth is 50?It sucks that some people are blinded by hatred and ignore the truth. They are the real racists. Buenos noches!

    HK subscriber

    Does Anyone remember  the untouchables ?   Police should generate a bit of fear  . It's not the happy world of quiet dinners and reality TV  for all .  Some of these gangs need to be pushed out of town  .

    They should count their blessings they are not face down in the bay . Proud of the PD  ,when Low life's call them A holes , keep up the good work . 

    HK subscriber

    @Jim Jones @Hans Kuwert  

    Jim wrote

    but if it was police tactics wouldn't help. because police "bullying" doesn't reduce gangs, nor does the "war" on drugs reduce drug use, both simply escalate the situation. 


    Making an unfriendly environment for them is the goal . 

    Maybe a time out or buy coffee for the gang and ask about their feelings ?

    Police have a saying exceed the threat ,  paint that picture with whatever 

    water colors you like .

    HK subscriber

    @Jim Jones @Hans Kuwert  

    You need to understand we may have too much freedom / liberties . The more things they can get away with the more they will try . People are like kids .  

    Gangs grow beyond street wars to white collar organized crime .Less murder more money . Less impact on the average citizen  ( unless you like drugs / street action ).  

    HK subscriber

    @Jim Jones @Hans Kuwert  

    Lets see , we can drive and drunk on the wrong side of the road and kill someone . Say it was meds or fell asleep at the wheel . Getting 3 - 4 years in prison . Or car theft is some low level misdemeanor  ( so john can keep a clean record ). 

    Sure some calls are over done . CPS can take your kids if you sleep for 3 hours while they are crying .

    Generally its all to loose and free . 

    Jake Resch
    Jake Resch subscriber

    So Voice of San Diego, did you ask what Muhammad is doing to help solve the gang violence in his community? He complains that cops have shaved heads and sunglasses. Last time I checked it is fairly sunny in San Diego for well.... Most of the year. And well cops work outside so that only makes sense. As for shaving their heads, it looks to me like they have the same haircut as Muhammad. What is the problem with haircut.

    Maybe you can ask Muhammad about the blatant racist comments that he made to the officers while in the police station. Things he had to be corrected about. Maybe you can do a story about how cooperative the community is with police when "witnessing" violent crime. It is amazing how many people "didn't see nothing".

    In order for the police to gain intelligence, they need to speak with people both gang members and non gang members. As for asking if someone is a gang member, how else are officers supposed to determine this? It is not like they walk around with shirts stating who they are everyday.

    As for young people being talked to, maybe you can reprint the story of the Khamisa murder from 1996. 3 of the 4 convicted for that gang robbery/ murder (including the trigger man) were 14.

    Jake Resch
    Jake Resch subscriber

    So if a community leader is not supposed to make his neighborhood a better, safer place to live, then please explain what a community leader does because obviously I am confused.

    As for gang crime as this article points out, the murders decreased since the year before, a little research shows that was a decrease from the year before that.

    For someone to be so critical, I see very little solutions. You comment in one post that cops need to worry about crime and not getting girls in the back seats. But then you blast them for being jack booted thugs when they do try to fight crime. Make up your mind.

    As for treating gangs like terrorists, you might want to research the STEP act. It wasn't the police who came up with the ideas, it was voted in by the people of California.

    Jake Resch
    Jake Resch subscriber

    Brown and black kids are the only gang members? Wow that is news to me Jim. There are plenty of whites and Asians in gangs in San Diego.

    As for the STEP, other than just you initial internet seach, you might want tot research why is brough to be and not just who passed it. Then look up Prop 21 which is what gave the gang enhancement the bigger penalties.

    This isn't a matter of just hanging out with buddies, being a gang member is NOT illegal. Participation in gang crime is. People can hang out with however they want. In fact a kid could get contacted every single day by the police, while wearing gang clothes or with other gangsters or whatever and it would not matter in the least bit. What this article does not cover is the fact that when the kids are getting in trouble it is for crimes they commit not just for who they hang with.

    As for the confusion, it was not about your claim of what police do. The confusion was over the purpose of a community leader. You see I thought a community leader was supposed to help make his community a better / safer place to live.

    Megan Burks
    Megan Burks author

    @Jake Resch  I appreciate your comments. I feel I should state that Muhammad did not make the comments about the sunglasses and shaved heads. That came from talking to multiple people on the street. I think they may have been referring to military-style haircuts because there seems to be a lot of unease about the military background of officers, especially within the refugee community. I'm not saying whether the concern is founded or unfounded, just that it's there.

    Over the past few months, we have touched on the reluctance you mention to participate in law enforcement. Many experts say those who feel they cannot trust their police department or that the law is not applied evenly are less likely to cooperate as witnesses. That being said, I am currently looking into police-community partnerships that work to quell violent crime. I hope you'll stay tuned, and thanks again for adding to the discussion.