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Cops Blame Gangs for S.F.'s Property Crime Wave 

Wednesday, Mar 30 2016
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In January, San Francisco police Capt. Joseph McFadden — commanding officer of Ingleside Station, which polices the Excelsior, Ingleside and the Outer Mission — sent his superiors at SFPD command staff a special request.

In an official operations order, the veteran cop asked for reinforcements, from the department's Gang Task Force — an outfit originally assembled to fight the gun-toting tongs in Chinatown in the 1970s — and possibly state and federal agencies.

McFadden needs help combating a variety of crimes all over his district, including gunfights, armed robberies, illegal casinos and nightclubs, and even simple property crimes like the auto break-ins that have causewd a steep rise in overall crime in San Francisco over the past few years.

The source of it all? Gang activity, McFadden said. Young black and brown men are taking advantage of an economically struggling, vacancy-ridden commercial corridor on Mission Street — where many seemingly-abandoned storefronts turn into underground clubs or off-license casinos at night — to wage a turf war.

"There're a lot of interior battles going on right now with the Norteños," McFadden said at a Feb. 2 meeting of the Outer Mission Merchants and Residents Association, a local neighborhood group. "A lot of the older generation have been taken out in the past and so now there's a power struggle."

There's also a youth movement afoot. Feuding with blue-dressed Sureños in the Mission District, red-clad Norteños are "heavily recruiting youngsters" as young as 14 into the gang ranks, who then "put in work" committing crimes — including the 70 daily auto burglaries plaguing motorists all over town.

As violent crimes stay relatively level in San Francisco, there's an ongoing crime wave where property is the victim. Auto break-ins are up 31 percent year-over-year, and are driving the 17 percent rise in reported property crimes — to 53,000 total in 2015, according to police statistics.

To account for this crime wave, some police officials, including the outspoken leaders of the Police Officers Association, blame crime reform movements like state prison realignment and Prop. 47, the measure sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón that reclassified some petty crimes (but not auto burglary) to misdemeanors.

But other cops around the Bay Area say gang members are turning to car break-ins to make easy money.

So was the broken glass where your passenger side window used to be caused by a gangbanger — or just the local neighborhood lawbreaker? It depends who you ask.

According to Inspector Leonard Broberg of the SFPD's Gang Task Force, gangs' turn to property crime "started a few years ago."

"Before it was always the [strongarm street] robbery," he claims. "But with the property crime, 'property crime, no time' is the slogan they have."

And these gangs travel outside of town for the right opportunity. At the the outlet malls in Vacaville, "Oakland and San Francisco gangsters" take advantage of the "tourists there who have suitcases and other stuff in their cars," Broberg claims.

In San Jose, police recently wrapped up a three-year investigation of hundreds of home burglaries. The perpetrators, according to authorities, were the 29 men charged with felonies in December by a grand jury: all of them Norteño gang members, prosecutors allege.

Major city police departments in the Bay Area recognize the trend. But to date, it's based on anecdotal evidence or closely held secrets. If any data exist, the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department refused to share it.

"I could not separate how many [crimes] are gang-related versus not," says San Mateo Sheriff's Detective Salvador Zuno, who believes there's a strategy in being tight-lipped. "I don't want to say the Norteños are in control of Palo Alto, because these guys will take that and go, 'That's, right we are' and then use that to intimidate others. We're not going to put them in position to empower these guys."

But not every cop believes organized crime — young or old, Norteño or Sureño — is behind the increase in property crimes.

"As far as I'm concerned I can't say the uptick is because of criminal gangs," says Sgt. J.D. Nelson, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff's Department. "You'd have to assume you arrested more gang-registered individuals than not in the last two years."

Police Chief Greg Suhr, who has not made a public declaration tying the property-crime wave to gangs as McFadden has, was not available for comment. Speaking on his behalf, Commander Greg McEachern, head of the SFPD's Investigations Bureau, agrees with Broberg that auto break-ins have replaced drug sales as gangs' bread-and-butter — so much so that S.F. cops have begun "measuring the connection between documented gang members and property crimes."

The Federal Bureau of Investigation analyzes all local police data, and federal agents — who would be called in to assist local cops in a major multi-jurisdictional gang crackdown — have not bought into McFadden's gang connection theory.

"The FBI has just not gathered details in respect [to gangs and property crime]," says San Francisco-based Assistant Agent in Charge of Violent Crimes Bertram Fairries, who notes the feds are definitely "hearing" the claim from local law enforcement, but cannot verify it.

"That is just not a statistic we are tracking," he adds. "My analysts are able to tell me that there is an increase in property crimes, but we have not associated that with gangs. I'm not saying we won't in the future, but right now, the FBI's focus with gangs is violence."

Defense attorneys say the one place gangs turn up with the most frequency is in the courtroom, where prosecutors are eager to tack on gang enhancements to otherwise run-of-the-mill urban crimes — like the car break-ins. (Gascón's prosecutors boast of a "100 percent trial conviction rate" for their Gang Unit.)

"We've seen nothing to back up" claims like McFadden's, said Tamara Aparton, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Public Defender's office. "Prosecutors appear to be adding gang enhancements to more petty crimes, but that does not mean gangs are increasingly turning to property crime."

Under the state Penal Code, a young man becomes a gang member when he meets two of 10 criteria, including "wearing gang clothing," having "identifiable gang tattoos," committing "gang-related crime," "affiliating with documented gang members" or "frequenting gang areas."

Critics say these are conveniently vague, and mean in effect that a gang member is anyone who police say is a gang member. Under these criteria, police could declare any crew of auto thieves who hail from the same area, dress similarly, or admit affiliation to a gang. (According to conversations with police, that's what cops are already doing.)

Deputy Public Defender Danielle Harris, who manages all felony cases, recalled an incident from last year in which a man was charged as a gang member for the theft of a pair of designer sunglasses — with only Broberg's expert testimony as evidence for gang enhancement (and the subsequent much-stiffer penalties).

"I have noticed in the last year or two [that prosecutors] have charged more relatively minor property offenses as gang crimes," she says. "Whether they're arresting people more or just charging, they just realized, 'We can charge these crimes as gang crimes, too.'"

The sunglasses thief was in custody for two months on $90,000 bail — meaning he needed 10 percent, or $9,000, to post bond and be outside prior to his trial, but couldn't come up with it. (Later, an accomplice of his copped to an affiliation with the Oakdale Mob, the Hunters Point crew of which city officials claimed Mario Woods was a member.)

"He is supposedly a gang member. He couldn't himself or anyone else in his gang figure out how to post 10 percent [bail]," Harris says. "This is what passes as a gang member in San Francisco. The gang is so unsuccessful they can't pay bail."

In San Francisco, police say they're working with other jurisdictions to shut down the fences — the "merchants" who peddle stolen goods bought from gang members — who may send overseas, en masse, the iPhones and other gear swiped out of cars at Fisherman's Wharf.

Meanwhile, McFadden says he's "tro­­ubled" by the short-term implications of what he believes is a macro trend — specifically the thought of a car owner discovering an armed gang member rifling through their vehicle, and being seriously injured or killed in a resulting altercation.

"I don't want them to get any strength," McFadden said. "We want to remove any gang activity from the Mission corridor, especially Mission-Geneva and lower Mission."

For Joelle Kenealey, president of the Outer Mission Merchants and Residents Association and a member of Ingleside Station's Community Police Advisory Board, the gang activity is alarming and mysterious.

"Where is it coming from?" she asks. "Are these Daly City Norteños? Are they city Norteños? Is there an internal war going on with the Norteños so all of a sudden we're seeing an increase in this type of behavior. That's obviously a question for the police and their resources and their people well-versed in the Gang Task Force. I find it unsettling and I don't really like it. I want a safe place to be."


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Alexander Mullaney

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