"There are a lot of murderers loose up here," Inspector Bob McMillan tells me, pulling off his 49ers cap and resetting it on his head. "We'll point 'em out to you," he adds.
"This is murderers' row," his partner, Officer Michael Philpott, points out.
The projects' deathly reputation has to do with drugs, guns, territory, proximity, and, of all things, a guy stepping on another guy's foot.
Harbor Road is on the downhill side of the projects. Oakdale, where another crew of hoods hangs out, is on the uphill side. A few years back, the two crews got along. Then one night at a party, an Oakdale guy stepped on a Harbor Road guy's foot. Or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, harsh words were passed. Everyone started fronting. Punches were thrown. And ever since, the Harbor and Oakdale crews have been killing each other.
True to his word, McMillan spots a killer. "Derek Dashawn," he says. Dashawn was involved in a drive-by last summer on Palou, McMillan says. Dashawn and his associates missed their intended target, someone who had disrespected a young girl at a party, but killed a pregnant women with a stray bullet.
Seconds later, a young man races by on his BMX bike. "Charles Gaines," McMillan says. "He's a stone-cold killer."
"He has death in his eyes," Philpott adds.
The tour continues on the flatlands of Bayview-Hunters Point. At Newcomb and Third, McMillan points to a man tearing into a rib at an impromptu sidewalk barbecue party. "Tony Miller," he says. "He killed a guy named Baby Lawrence."
It happened at the longshoreman's hall dance last year. McMillan says Miller sprayed Lawrence with a machine gun as he climbed some stairs to get away. Miller suspected Lawrence of stealing $15,000 from his house. "There were plenty of witnesses, but no one will testify," McMillan says.
Around just about every corner, the two cops point to another unpunished killer. "There are no rules out here," McMillan says. "You know the saying, to 'get away with murder.' Well, you can out here."
By "out here," McMillan means the southeast quadrant of the city: forgotten war zones like Hunters Point, Double Rock, and Sunnydale where the vast majority of the city's African-American community resides. Out here, death and drugs guide the rhythm of life. Out here, blacks kill blacks and the police generally don't give a damn.
But that changed five months ago, when two veteran homicide inspectors, Napoleon Hendrix and Earl Saunders, examined the record, discovering that 33 homicides, all of them black-on-black, were still unsolved. Some were 5 years old. The stagnant cases had other similarities. Amounting to approximately one-third of the annual murder rate, the killings had all taken place in the southeast corner of the city. Most of the victims were themselves unsavory characters, killers and crack dealers.
The nature of the crimes did not excite an aggressive police response, Hendrix and Saunders say. After all, cops could ask themselves, hasn't street justice been meted out here? Are these really the victims we should occupy our time trying to vindicate?
"We kind of took it personally," says Hendrix. "If you hadn't noticed, me and Inspector Saunders are black."
"Racism plays a lot into this," Saunders stresses. "It's like the dirty air you breathe, as American as apple pie and Chevrolet. If there were this many unsolved murders in the North Beach area, there would have been a massive task force on it right away."
In 1995, the San Francisco Police Department has amassed a record of inaction with dramatic racial implications. Dramatic but not surprising. For the better part of the last century, cops have been more than happy to look the other way as blacks killed one another . Segregation kept blacks out of sight, out of mind. That lackluster attitude has nurtured the code of silence in poor, black areas and perpetuated the cycle of distrust between police and blacks.
Under constant pushing from Hendrix, the department finally decided to devote resources to solving the 33 homicides. The result was CRUSH, the Crime Response Unit to Stop Homicide.
Hendrix and Saunders fielded six cops -- three white, two black, one Filipino -- with deep roots in the southeast sector and put them in plainclothes. Their mandate: beat the bushes and flush witnesses, guns, and informants so homicide inspectors at the Hall of Justice can close cases.
The plan shredded the standard SFPD rule books. Only one of the team members, McMillan, is an inspector. The rest are grunt officers. Normally, the officers would be light-years away from working murder investigations out of the Inspectors Bureau. But Hendrix and Saunders needed action, and they wouldn't have gotten that working from seniority lists.
So far, CRUSH has made more than 250 felony arrests, for crimes ranging from possession and parole violations to attempted murder and murder. They've solved three of the 33 homicides and made 10 additional homicide collars, confiscating more than 60 firearms along the way.
Still, numbers never tell the whole story of police work. Many of the crimes CRUSH is investigating will probably remain unsolved. The simple truth is that if a killer isn't nailed in the first week after the crime, the chances are he won't be. (The CRUSH unit has had to content itself with busting seven murderers for lesser beefs to get them off the street.) Still more cases will be adjudicated on the streets. And new homicides will quickly take precedence.
But CRUSH's main purpose goes beyond solving the 33 cases. Hendrix and Saunders know that the Police Department needs to weave itself into the fabric of life in the southeast part of the city. It might take years, they concede. But if peace is to be brought to that wide, forgotten swath of San Francisco, cops are going to have to show that they give a damn, that killings, no matter how sordid, will not be forgotten.