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Menace to Society: Why Many Young Black Men are Accused of Being in Gangs 

Wednesday, Aug 8 2012
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The District Attorney's office charged Bender with illegally carrying a loaded firearm, drug possession, and receiving stolen property (the gun). Prosecutors tacked on what is known as a "gang enhancement," which adds extra prison time to a conviction if the perp is — according to the state penal code — "an active participant in a criminal street gang" who committed a felony "for the benefit of, at the direction of, and in association with a criminal street gang with the specific intent to promote, further and assist in criminal conduct by gang members."

Bender says he wasn't a gang member. So do youth counselors and community members who knew him. He'd never been convicted of a gang-related crime before, he has no gang tattoos, and no police officer had seen him flash a gang sign. Nor is there any evidence he'd ever sold drugs, committed a robbery, or fired a gun.

A common tool for city prosecutors, these gang enhancements open the door to testimony typically not admitted into criminal trials — hearsay, criminal histories of the defendant's friends, descriptions of crimes for which the defendant was not charged — all channelled through an "expert witness" police officer. In addition to hearing evidence on the principal charges, juries contemplate the defendant's social life, his wardrobe, his past misdeeds, and anything else a prosecutor thinks will show that the defendant could have been an extra in an N.W.A. music video.

"It's like being charged with being the devil," says Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

City prosecutors apply laws originally established to target organized criminal enterprises — like MS-13 or the Norteños — against groups that, community activists and defense lawyers argue, shouldn't even be considered gangs.

The DA's office counters that gang enhancement charges are naturally vetted — the accusation must pass through the police department, then the DA's office, then a judge, then, ultimately, a San Francisco jury.

"We look at each case individually and support efforts to get young people out of the gang life," District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement to SF Weekly. "If someone chooses to engage in violent gang activity, however, we will prosecute those gang members aggressively in order to prevent them from victimizing the community."

To be sure, there is institutional incentive to maintain the status quo. By calling kids like Bender gang members and their crimes gang-related, the police department gets more money and the DA's office racks up easier convictions.

So when Jacori Bender took his seat in court, he was charged not as a first-time felony offender, but as a menace to society.


On Sept. 4, 1977, a pack of Joe Boys gangsters stormed into Chinatown's Golden Dragon restaurant and opened fire, seeking to assassinate rival gang Wah Ching's shot-caller. The Joe Boys didn't hit their enemies, instead killing five bystanders, two of them tourists. In response, the San Francisco Police Department created the Gang Task Force, a team of inspectors and officers dedicated to investigating gang-related crimes.

Throughout the next decade, gang violence, fueled by the crack epidemic, spread across California, led by the Crips, Bloods, Mexican Mafia, and others. Jolted into action, the state Legislature passed in 1988 the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP), which noted that "California is in a state of crisis."

STEP introduced gang enhancements, which can add two to four years of extra prison time for less serious felonies and up to 15 extra years for violent felonies. The state recognized that a gang's power stems from its structure, so the new policy focused "upon patterns of criminal gang activity and upon the organized nature of street gangs, which together are the chief source of terror created by street gangs." Twelve years later, California voters passed Proposition 21, strengthening the penalties for juveniles who commit gang felonies and requiring that gang offenders register in a database. "Gang-related crimes pose a unique threat to the public because of gang members' organization and solidarity," the legislation explained

In the years since, San Francisco authorities have sharpened their anti-gang strategy. Starting in 2007, City Attorney Dennis Herrera leveled gang injunctions against seven groups — three in Western Addition (Eddy Rock, Chopper City, Knock Out Posse), two in Visitacion Valley (Towerside, Down Below Gangsters), one in Bayview (Oakdale Mob), and one in the Mission (Norteños). With help from the Gang Task Force, Herrera identified nearly a hundred "validated gang members" and barred them from publicly congregating in their respective gangs' territories, which were marked as "injunction zones."

San Francisco's war on gangs has been bolstered by grant money. Since 2006, the city has received around $1.7 million in state and federal funding specifically for anti-gang initiatives. About a quarter of that money came from federal programs focused on educating youth (Gang Resistance Education and Training) and offering recreational activities (Project Safe Neighborhoods). More than half of the total, however, came from the state's California Gang Reduction, Intervention, and Prevention program (CalGRIP).

Competing for the grant against many other agencies, the SFPD explained in recent applications that "approximately half of the city's homicides are over gang turf and drug sales." The department's 2009 CalGRIP application declared that "In San Francisco there are roughly 41 identified gangs, estimated to have approximately 1,660 key members." Apparently membership is quickly rising, because according to the 2011 application San Francisco gangs are "estimated to have approximately 2,500 key members." Neither of these calculations resembles the data local law enforcement officials entered into the CalGang database, which states that San Francisco had 465 gang members in 2010.

Identifying gang membership can be a subjective task, and it's easy to guess why the department's application would lean on the criteria that netted higher numbers: The bigger the gang problem, the likelier the grant request will be approved, the more money pours into the police budget. In 2009 and 2011 combined, the CalGRIP initiative brought the SFPD more than $1.2 million, half from the state and half from the city's mandatory match. From that total, 82 percent — around $1 million — covered police overtime pay.


About The Author

Albert Samaha

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