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The War On Gangs 

With murders on the rise, City Attorney Dennis Herrera is cracking down on gangs using a legal tool critics say smacks of McCarthyism

Wednesday, Aug 22 2007
A police car rolls down Oakdale Avenue past a public housing complex as worn and ashen as a Dust Bowl barn. Broom still in hand, Tau Calo has stepped outside her ground-level apartment to cool off from sweeping its linoleum floors, beads of sweat dotting her face. She watches the black-and-white cruiser crest a small hill and disappear.

Calo moved into the five-bedroom unit with her husband and their five children in 1996. In their Hunters Point neighborhood, a place thick with subsidized housing located a Hail Mary toss from Candlestick Park, crime and poverty collide. Cops have long been part of the area's daily life, arriving with sirens squalling when mayhem erupts. But officers patrolling the streets on a quiet weekday afternoon — that's a relatively new spectacle.

"The police come by more often," Calo says. "It's a lot better than it was before."

She's referring to the time before last November, when City Attorney Dennis Herrera obtained a civil injunction against the Oakdale Mob, creating a so-called safety zone in the neighborhood. Among other restrictions, the court order prohibits the gang's members, suspects in a dozen homicides since 2003, from publicly consorting within the safety zone's four square blocks. Those caught violating the ban risk a stint of up to six months in the county jail.

For the 49-year-old Calo, whose building sits in the heart of the safety zone, the beefed-up police presence spawned by the injunction has eased her maternal anxiety. Two years ago, while her youngest son, then 12, stood with friends on the sidewalk, a gunman opened fire at a group of men clustered near them. A bullet pierced the leg of Calo's 20-year-old son, who had shown up moments earlier to bring his little brother home. (The older brother recovered.)

The area's chronic violence remains enough of a concern that Calo forbids her youngest to stay outside after dark. Yet with the gang apparently scattered, she says the neighborhood has calmed over the last nine months. The curbside drug trade has dissolved. Fewer bursts of gunfire interrupt the night. "We're happy the police are doing their job," Calo says. "We don't feel so scared anymore."

Calo lives about a block from the Captain Shorey Community Center, where workers have set up a folding table for a sidewalk cookout. Hot dogs and hamburgers sizzle on an electric grill as tendrils of smoke curl skyward, an inviting signal to passers-by hungry for lunch. The food sales will fund a field trip to Santa Cruz for children attending the center's day-care program.

Sheryl Perkins returns most days to the street where she grew up, visiting family and old friends. Waiting in line to buy a hot dog, she flays authorities for depicting the area as gang-infested.

"It's just neighborhood people, not gangs," says Perkins, a teacher at nearby Charles Drew Elementary. "They're out here because they can't find work." She believes city officials could better staunch street crime by expanding after-school and social programs for youth and providing more job training for young adults. "Give the money to this center," she says. "Then it wouldn't have to be out here raising money." A squad car drifts past while she talks.

On a short brick wall behind the table sits a man in his late 20s, wearing jeans, a green sweatshirt, and a black nylon do-rag. He offers a blunt rationale for declining to divulge his name. "I'm on that list," he says, referring to the Oakdale Mob injunction. His employer fired him last year after learning of his alleged gang affiliation, he claims, and months passed before he found a construction company willing to hire him. He worries that history might repeat itself if his new employer reads his name in the paper.

The man refuses to disclose why he landed in prison a few years ago. Yet he blames the injunction for hindering his ability to move forward. "I did wrong back then," he says. "But I did my time, paid my debt. How long do I got to be harassed?"

His question, along with the differing opinions of Calo and Perkins, reveals the complexities of a churning citywide debate on gang injunctions, a discussion amplified by a recent spike in murders. Entering the week, this year's homicide total stood at 67. The figure puts San Francisco on a pace comparable to 2005, when it recorded a 10-year high with 96 killings. (The city tallied 85 murders last year.)

A rash of shootings and stabbings has turned the summer bloody in the Western Addition and the Mission, with police ascribing much of the carnage to gang skirmishes. Herrera has reacted by pursuing a pair of civil injunctions against gangs in each district. His lawsuits charge that the groups, by virtue of committing murders, robberies, and assaults, dealing drugs, and vandalizing property, pose a public nuisance.

In targeting three Western Addition gangs — Chopper City, Knock Out Posse, and Eddy Rock — Herrera seeks to carve out two different safety zones that would cover a combined 12 square blocks. His other proposed injunction would delineate a safety zone five times that size in the Mission to quell the Norteño gang.

The orders would impose safety-zone constraints akin to those enforced in Hunters Point. The 76 alleged gang members named in the lawsuits could receive jail time for hanging out together in public, throwing gang signs, or recruiting new members. The suspected Norteños also would be banned from wearing red, the gang's color, and would face a curfew between 10 p.m. and sunrise.

The Oakdale Mob injunction, the first such order slapped on a San Francisco gang, established Herrera as arguably the city's leading anti-crime crusader. This time around, despite solid support from police officials and residents in the affected areas, he finds himself under siege from a coalition of neighborhood advocates and civil libertarians. Their criticism surged last month with the release of a think-tank study that asserts injunctions fail to deter gang crime. Herrera's foes further argue that such court orders inhibit young men from leaving the streets behind, circumvent their civil rights, and sanction racial profiling by police.

About The Author

Martin Kuz


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