Every Thursday, one of San Diego’s most notorious gangsters goes to one of the city’s most notorious corners to rally for peace.
“This is my corner, man,” said Stacy Butler, extending his arm wide to point across Euclid and Imperial Avenues in Lincoln Park.
Decades ago, the intersection became known as the Four Corners of Death for its reputation as a gang violence hotbed. Around the same time, Butler, then a gang member, went to prison after being implicated in the killing of a San Diego police officer. After he served 12 years, Butler pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was released in 2000 after a string of police and prosecutorial misconduct tainted the evidence against him. He’s always maintained his innocence.
These days, Butler’s trying to be known in southeastern San Diego neighborhoods for helping to end violence in his community.
Last Thursday afternoon, Butler pulled handmade signs out of his 1993 Chevy Astro van: “Stop Going To Jail,” “Guns Kill Dreams” and “Pita Si Quieres Paz,” Spanish for “Honk If You Want Peace” and a nod to City Council District 4’s changing demographics.
He wore a necklace made out of black, red, blue, green, brown and gray bandanas tied together to represent the colors of area gangs.
“Diego Needs Peace,” he chanted through a bullhorn. “Honk If You Want Peace.”
Butler started rallying about two years ago when a rash of killings rocked southeastern San Diego. Back then, 100 people joined Butler on the corner. Now, only a handful of others rally with him each week.
In the hour Butler was on the corner, he was alternately ignored and embraced. Sometimes, passersby avoided eye contact with Butler as they walked past. Some drivers thrust their fists out the window in support or drowned out Butler’s chants with the din of horns.
Butler’s rallies give a consistent voice to the most significant public safety problem in the district: homicide. The topic of violence comes up often at candidate forums for the March 26 special election to fill the district’s council seat.
A broader look at police stats, however, reveals the district had the city’s third-lowest overall crime rate over the past three years. But even as crime ticked down, the district has the grim distinction of bearing an outsize share of the city’s murders. From 2010 to 2012, almost a quarter of the city’s 114 murders occurred in District 4. (The district ranked second in murders during that time to District 9, which covers much of City Heights. But District 9 was only created in 2011, and it includes some neighborhoods that used to be part of District 4.)
District 4’s current crime problems are still a far cry from 20 years ago, when a former councilman held a mock funeral to bury the name “Southeast” because he believed it evoked violence.
“We’re not where we need to be,” said Tony McElroy, a police captain who has led the department’s Southeastern Division for five years. “But we’re not like we used to be.”
McElroy, who grew up in the neighborhood and has been with the department for more than three decades, credits the district’s lower crime rate to improved relationships between the community and police officers.
The department used to have to send two police cars to incidents in the southeastern sections of the city because people would slash cops’ tires and throw rocks, McElroy said. That doesn’t happen anymore. McElroy tries to model the way he wants his officers to interact with the public. He hands out his cell phone number to anyone who wants it.
“When I see people, I don’t just handshake,” McElroy said. “I give hugs.”
Gang violence remains the biggest barrier to lowering the district’s homicide rate, he said. Gang members often tell McElroy they would get out if they had jobs.
Butler said he hears the same thing. Gang members listen to him, he said, because of what he’s been through.
Butler’s own job as a landscaper at the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation probably kept him from returning to prison, he said.
“If everyone was working around here, you might have no murders,” he said.
|Photo by Sam Hodgson|
|A driver reacts to a rally for peace at the corner of Euclid and Imperial avenues in southeastern San Diego.|
Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5663.
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