On a mission - Page 2

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

It's a tiny project right now, involving maybe 20 people. Cathey and Sands, with the support of the brass at Mission Station and Chief Greg Suhr, are trying to expand it to reach kids as early as middle school, before the gangs get to them. They've rounded up a construction contractor who spent half his adult life behind bars, an ex-gang member, a City College administrator, and Supervisor David Campos, and, mostly under the radar, are trying to do what all the academics and professionals say is the only effective approach to this kind of crime. They're trying to stop it before it happens.

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One day about 18 months ago, Campos was walking down 24th Street, on his way to get a burrito for lunch, when a police car pulled over and two plainclothes cops got out. Campos represents the Mission, and previously served on the Police Commission, but he had never met Cathey or Sands. "I was surprised to see these two tough guys come up to me," the supervisor recalled recently.

"They just stopped me and said, 'supervisor, we need your help,'" Campos said. "They said they were tired of the cycle of putting kids in jail and seeing them come back out and do the same thing again, and they wanted to find an alternative. They asked me if I could get some gang members jobs."

What the officers explained was simple, if counterintuitive: "The young men on the street are smart," Campos told me. "They have a lot of skills to live the way they do. If they could put that into something constructive, they could be very successful."

Campos gave the cops his card, told them to call his office — and an unusual relationship between one of the most progressive supervisors and two gang cops was born.

"It was crazy when I told my staff that we were going to be working in the Mission with law enforcement," Campos said. "I've had people stop me and say, 'Campos, what are you doing with the cops?' But these guys are great, and they're doing something really important."

What the gang cops had in mind was this: If the city could offer jobs — outdoor, hands-on, get-your-fingers-dirty jobs — and Cathey and Sands could convince gang members to step away from the life and try working, there might be a way to end the violence.

The program would be tightly controlled: The two officers would invite gang members to apply for jobs, would screen them, and keep on top of every applicant. People who missed work, or screwed up on the job, would get a visit; Cathey and Sands would watch the streets, follow everyone in the program, check in with families — and let everyone know that their lives and futures were on the line.

"We started with one kid they knew," Campos said. "We decided to see if we could find him a job."

Campos contacted the Public Utilities Commission, which hires workers to do landscaping, and convinced the general manager, Ed Harrington, to give it a try.

Cathey and Sands went looking for the young man who would kick off the program (let's call him J.), and wound up at his house, talking to his mom and dad. That would become a central part of their MO, involving the parents of gang members and trying to bring together what are sometimes not the closest of families.

It wasn't an easy sell — the family didn't trust law enforcement. "Then they told the dad that they were working with Campos, and their guard went down," the supervisor said.

J. started working with the PUC, doing gardening and landscaping work. "He was so successful, nobody could believe it," Campos said. "We went to see him later, and his dad said his life had completely changed. It changed the whole family.

"When we saw that, we decided we needed to expand this."

From the start, Mission Station Captain Greg Corrales — a no-nonsense cop who is not known as a starry-eyed liberal — saw the logic and got behind his two officers. Chief Suhr also came on board.