On a mission - Page 4

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

"They have recruiters outside the middle schools," Cathey tells me. "Last night we arrested a 15-year-old for possession of a handgun. They older guys made him hold it. Now his life is about to be ruined."

The two cops are opposites: Cathey is ebullient, outgoing, a former tech worker who is constantly talking, texting and emailing. Sands is quiet, more taciturn, a martial artist who walks the streets with the look of serious business.

But they're fast friends and partners who can communicate with a quick nod or shake of the head, and nothing in the Mission gets by them.

We pull up at 16th and Mission. "Just watch, the block will clear," Cathey says. And yes, the minute the gang car is spotted, a guy in a blue hoodie ducks down into the BART station.

There's a girl who can't be 16 yet sitting on the bench. Sands hangs back while Cathey approaches her. He asks what she's doing, what's going on; she shrugs and ignores him. Not interested.

Cathey speaks with a bit of resignation as we walk back to the car. "She's already jumped in" — initiated into the gang — he says. It's going to be hard to reach the girl; the gang members she hangs out with are violent, armed, "and will come down on you in a second."

It's hard not to feel the frustration that comes with the territory: Violent and dangerous, maybe — but still, she's still just a little girl.

We head up to 24th Street, Norteno turf. Here, when you look for it, red is everywhere. "A lot of these kids are living in crowded situations, in relatives houses," Cathey says. "The gangs tell the young ones that they shouldn't trust their families, that the gang is their new family. That's what we're up against."

Two young men duck into a jewelry store. Cathey throws the car into park and the officers get out, walking slowly toward the entrance. The men with the red jackets and red highlights on their shoes know the drill. A quick warrant check and they know they're free to go — but not without listening to Cathey for a few minutes.

This time, "The Speech" is falling on deaf ears.

Later, Cathey shows me a video he's captured off YouTube. It's hard to find, hidden under gang names that only insiders would know. It shows some of the guys we've seen on the street, beating the living shit out of people. In one scene, a handful of gang members approach a man, punch him in until he falls to the ground, then kick his head until he's unconscious.

"This is what they do," Cathey says. "They terrorize the neighborhood."

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I am back in the community room at Mission Station. Cathey and Sands have invited me to an "intervention." A boy and a girl, both of them in eighth grade, are coming in, with their parents, to talk about their flirtations with gang life.

A counselor at James Lick Middle School contacted the officers after seeing signs that the kids were showing gang colors and drifting away from their schoolwork and their families. Cathey and Sands were at Lick a few months earlier, running an assembly and talking about the dangers of gangs; the counselor got their phone numbers.

I have agreed to use no names or in any way identify the participants in the intervention. So I sit and watch as Cathey runs the show.

The boy appears painfully young, small and shy; it's hard to believe he's even in eighth grade. He wears a hoodie and makes little eye contact with anyone else in the room. The girl is taller, more self-assured.

I can't fathom that kids this young – the age of my own son, who is still shedding the soft edge of youth, sliding slowly into adolescence — are already prey to the gang recruiters. But the evidence is clear.