On a mission

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

tredmond@sfbg.com

Every gang member on the streets knows Cathey and Sands. They're the cops. They've busted dozens of the young men who hang out in the Mission. They know every excuse, every trick, every way you can duck into an alley, hide in a doorway, ditch a weapon or cover up a crime.

But today, as they cruise around 24th Street in an unmarked car, Officers John Cathey and David Sands are not talking about putting bad guys in prison. They've been there, done that — and a year or two ago, they got so sick of seeing teenagers ruining their lives that the two tough cops decided to take another approach.

The officers pull their unmarked car into a side street, where two young men are walking together. They're Norteños, Cathey explains, part of the gang that controls the southern part of the neighborhood, and they've got the telltale red colors all over them. Red shirts, red caps, red strips on their shoes.

Cathey approaches the young men and asks them what they're doing. "Nothing," they say.

They look at him as if they know what's coming next, and chances are they do. It happens all the time these days in the world of the Mission District gangs. Cathey is about to give "The Speech." The one that hundreds of gangbangers have heard, over and over. The one that's already saved a few of their lives.

"You know what happened last night?" he asks. The kids feign ignorance. "Sure you do," he continues. "A bunch of your guys got arrested. Your buddy just turned 18 and he got caught. He's going to big-boy jail."

The kids in red look at the ground.

"You want to wind up like that, you keep doing what you're doing," Cathey says. "You want to do something different, we can get you a job. A decent job, pays real money, in six months you get benefits. You know you don't have to do this. You know we can help."

For a second, one young man looks interested. "You come by the station, you leave your number for me, we'll be in touch," Cathey says. Then the moment's over, the Nortenos walk away, and the two cops get back in the car.

"We might have a chance with him," Cathey tells me. "I'm like water, I wear them down."

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Latino gangs — primarily two violent rival operations that run drugs and kill each other — have been a serious problem in the Mission for years. Kids as young as 11 or 12 are getting recruited into a life that typically leads to Juvenile Hall, state prison, or death. The city, and nonprofits that work with youth, have run all sorts of gang-prevention programs, with some success and a lot of failure.

While the Mission rapidly becomes a cool place for rich high-tech workers to live, the violence continues. In the past seven months, 10 people, most of them under 25, have been shot in gang-related incidents; three are dead.

But there's a new, somewhat radical approach going on now — and it comes largely from two police officers who get paid to arrest gang members and instead are devoting their lives to keeping them out of jail.

Cathey and Sands, 11-year veterans, friends from their days in the Police Academy, have, pretty much on their own initiative, created a grassroots program that allows young men and women who want to get out of the gang life to go to work for the city, typically as landscapers, to earn a paycheck, find a new supportive community and leave The Life.

It doesn't always work. Some try and don't make it. The drop-out rate is high; it's a constant struggle. But for the people who take, and keep, jobs in the program, the success rate is phenomenal.

"It's pretty simple," Cathey told me. "One hundred percent of the guys who get the jobs and go to work every day leave the gang life. One hundred percent of the ones who don't show up for work, who don't stick with it, go back to the gangs."