On a mission - Page 3

Two Mission cops decided they'd rather get jobs for gang members than keep arresting them. And it's working.

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Officers hold intervention for families with at-risk kids at the Mission station.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY AMANDA LOPEZ

In the early days, Cathey and Sands had no resources at all — not even money to get the young workers Muni or BART tickets. Campos helped track down the funding, and worked with the officers on the next group of kids.

"I bring them into my office at City Hall," he said. "I explain that there's a real responsibility here. You are going to change your life."

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I am sitting in the community room at the Mission Police Station, talking to two young men who Cathey and Sands have brought into the program. They've had some problems — missing work, hanging out with their old gangs — and they're at risk of losing their jobs. Cathey is blunt: Keep this up, and you're done. Keep this up, and you're going back to the streets, back to the life you wanted to leave.

I tell the men I'm not going to print their names, and they agree to talk to me. It's a dangerous situation — the gangs don't like members dropping out, and really don't like to see them at the police station working with the cops.

"Just walking in this door is a hard thing to do," Cathey says.

But the two officers make it clear to everyone they meet — on the streets, in the program, and everywhere else: These kids are not snitches. "We don't ask them to tell on their friends," Cathey said. "I don't do that, and I don't want any part of it. This isn't about us finding out information about the gangs, and that's not why people come and see us."

I ask the two young men about what their lives were like before they started working. They're not interested in talking. When I ask straight out if they were gang members, they shrug, and change the subject.

But they're happy to talk about their jobs and what it means to be employed. They're bringing home a paycheck. They can help out their families. They're also up early in the morning and really tired at night; the idea of going out with their old friends isn't that appealing.

The handful of people who are working, and not showing gang colors, hasn't stopped the violence in the e Mission. One of the kids in the program was shot and killed a few months ago. "It was heartbreaking," Campos said. "I went to see the parents, and they told me how proud their son had been, how he was bragging about being the first one in the house up in the morning, how he loved his job."

On the other hand, Campos noted, "There normally would have been retaliation for that shooting, and more killing. But the ones who might have retaliated were in our program, so it didn't happen."

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The tech workers from Google and Apple and Facebook who are flooding into the Mission don't see the signs on the street. Upscale white people who think the neighborhood is cool don't tend to notice what's happening in front of their eyes. There are at least 200 active gang members in the small piece of land bounded by Cesar Chavez, Potrero, Castro and 16th. As Cathey and Sands drive around, they see the colors everywhere.

North of 19th Street, the young men and women wear blue. They're Surenos, southerners; many of them are recent immigrants. Cross 19th and the colors turn red; the Nortenos, who sport the number 14, control the south Mission. They tend to be born in this country.

Back in the 1960s, the two gangs emerged out of the state prison system; Surenos lived south of Bakersfield, Nortenos north. But these days, the geographic lines aren't always as clear. "They're really the same guys on both sides of the line," Cathey explains. "Other than this blind loyalty, they'd probably get along."

The gangs make their money selling drugs, and much of it eventually goes back to a handful of leaders, many serving long prison terms. Since a lot of the members either die or wind up incarcerated before they get out of their 20s, recruiting is constant.