On a mission - Page 5

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

When the parents and other family members are seated, Cathey starts asking the boy about gang life. "What color do the Sureños wear?" Blue, the boy says. "What about the Norteños?" Red. "Where does Norteño territory start?" 19th Street. "What number do the Norteños associate with?" Fourteen. "Can you give me the street names of some gang members?" The boy rattles off a few.

Cathey looks over at the boy's dad. "He knows a lot, doesn't he?" The dad is visibly startled. So are the girl's family members as the officers run through a similar routine.

"We're seeing younger and younger kids get dragged in," Cathey tells me later. Often, parents and grandparents — working multiple jobs to pay the rent in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood — have little or no idea how far their kids have gone into the gang life.

Next up is Mike Bowen. He's a soft-spoken guy whose face bears the scars of a hard life of substance abuse and jail time. In fact, he's spent much of his adult life running from the law, winding up at one point jumping from a third-story window in a Tenderloin building to avoid arrest.

Two broken legs and months in the hospital put him on a path to sobriety — and a new life. "I used to think the money was in crime," he tells the group. "Then I got myself together, went back to school, got my contractor's license, and pretty soon I bought my first Lamborghini."

That gets the young boy's attention.

"You have so much going for you," Bowen says. "You can make it."

He turns to the boy's mom, who speaks only Spanish, and asks her how it's going. Not so great, she says; she just got laid off, and is having trouble finding a new job. Bowen reaches into his pocket and pulls out a stack of $100 bills. "Here, take this," he says. "It will help until you find work."

That really gets the boy's attention.

Bowen's been a key part of the two cops' efforts, and they met entirely by chance. "I was driving down Folsom," he told me. "I parked at a store and I saw these two cops, and I said hi and they wanted to check out my car, and we started to talk about my background. They told me what they were doing, and I said I'd love to help."

Bowen offered money, which they needed, but that was just the start. "They brought me with them to James Lick," he recalled. "I brought the Lamborghini. That got every one of the kids interested. I let them sit in it, then we talked.

"I told them that the gang members say the only way to get money is to join the gang. But I got out, went to school, and now I have a house and really nice car."

When Bowen's done with his talk, Cathey puts his cell phone on speaker and dials a number. The man on the other end is a former gang member. "He's the real deal," Cathey whispers to me. And indeed, for about ten minutes, he tells the two young people and their families exactly what their lives will be like if they follow the path he took at their age. By the end, the boy is shaken and the girl is crying.

Cathey's not done yet. Guillermo Villanueva, a City College counselor, takes over and reads the families a pledge that Cathey and Sands have written. It's all about family, about staying out of the gang life, but also respecting and taking care of each other. "Family and Education Forever" is the slogan, chosen because the gangs, who tell members that they are their new families, use "family forever."

Yeah, the language in the pledge is a little bit hokey — but nobody's laughing.

Cathey asks the boy what he wants from his parents. "I just wish my daddy had more time to play soccer with me," he says. The officer looks at the father. "Every day, I'll be there after work," he says.

The pledge is on a plaque signed by Chief Suhr. Everyone signs it. By the end, there are tears and hugs all around.