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Home  >  Topics  >  Gangs

October 01, 2007
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The Badge — S.F. gang cop prefers talking to applying handcuffs

The relationship between the media and law enforcement is often adversarial. Reporters appear to seek the sensational elements of a crime story, often to the detriment of the police, and officers tend to be uncooperative with journalists they seem to instinctively mistrust.

Not so with “The Badge,” a new series presented by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter/photographer team embedded with the SFPD. Kudos to the Chronicle for pursuing this series and to the officers who willingly put themselves in the media spotlight in the hopes of helping civilians develop a better understanding of life behind the badge. You’re putting a human face on “the police,” which will benefit us all.

Read the full "Badge" series

By John Koopman
The San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO It's early evening in San Francisco's Mission District, and a young man in a ponytail is walking quickly down a dark street. An unmarked police car rolls past, and the driver says out the window, "Hold up."

The young man is walking away from a group of known gang members. He's on probation for a grand-theft charge. The cops, Officer Mario Molina and his partner, Sgt. Dion McDonnell, swing their unmarked car around and park it at the street corner.

Officer Mario Molina (left, not shown) and Sgt. Dion McDonnell make a stop of a car on 24th Street. They later find three gang members in the car. (SF Chronicle photo by Brant Ward)
They know the young man, who is in his early 20s. Molina has arrested him three times. He could arrest him again. Technically, he is violating the terms of his probation by being in an area of known gang activity.

"Molina, how you doing?" the man says as the officer pats him down, looking for weapons or drugs.

"Doing OK, man," Molina responds. Finding nothing on the man, he continues, "How's your baby doing? I heard he was in the ICU."

The young man turns to face the officers, and they have a little chat in the dirt and sparse grass of the street corner.

"He's doing all right now," the man responds. "I'm on my way to take care of him right now."

"That's good," Molina says, using the man's first name. "You changing a lot of diapers?"

"Aw, hell yeah," the man laughs. "I'm up to my ass in diapers."

Molina has changed a lot of diapers in his life. The San Francisco police officer knows what it's like to be a new father, to take care of your baby, to look at a new child with love and wonderment.

That's his hook tonight. His bridge. The seed he will plant in a young man's head, trying to gently turn him from the gang life to something else. Anything else, as long as it doesn't involve violations of the penal code.

Sgt. Dion McDonnell checks out a car that he and Molina have stopped. They talk with known gang members. (SF Chronicle photo by Brant Ward)
Molina and McDonnell are members of the SFPD Gang Task Force. They make a lot of arrests. But Molina says it's not enough. Outreach, he says, is important, too. Conversations don't show up on the stat sheet, but gang problems can't be solved only with handcuffs and steel bars.

"You've got to give people an alternative," he says.

Molina is originally from Central America, and moved to San Francisco in his teens. He worked as a counselor in Juvenile Hall for several years and then as a parole officer before joining the SFPD when he was 30. He worked for several years out of Mission Station, where he learned about Latino gang life.

Along the way, Molina earned a master's degree in marriage and family counseling. So he brings a different approach to dealing with gang members. He'd rather talk than pull out the cuffs.

"You have to get to know people, you have to know their families and what's going on with their lives," he says.

So he goes out and talks to people on the street. Most of the time, it's like digging a dry well. Gang members see him coming and don't want anything to do with him.

He and McDonnell started the night at a park where dozens of young men, mostly wearing some kind of blue, played soccer and chatted on the sidelines. Several players are in the MS-13, a gang that originated in El Salvador.

Here, at best, he gets a nod and a "Hey, Molina." But not much else.

He and McDonnell check out several of the men, and Molina speaks Spanish with them. There have been four gang-related shootings in the past week and Molina wants them to know that's not acceptable.

"I don't know nothin' about any of that," one man responds to Molina.

"You better talk to your boys," Molina says. "Four in one week is too much. We're going to come down on you if you can't keep these guys in check."

It's important to keep in touch with these men, but nothing useful comes from the conversation, and the two cops move on.

Molina says he tries to find something he can use to make a connection with the gang members on the street. Like culling a steer from a herd, he tries to get them away from their buddies, and talk man to man. There, they might just might open up and tell him things he can use, either for an arrest or to try to get them out of the gang life.

He describes a conversation he had recently with a young gang member. The subject of the man's father came up.

"He started talking about how he grew up without a father, because he was in and out of prison," Molina recalls. The man's mother worked two jobs to help support her family, and she turned to drugs, too, to help cope with a very hard life.

"He kinda got a little teary-eyed," Molina says. "He was talking about sitting at home with nothing to eat, waiting for his mom to come home from work.

"My thing was, you want to get out of that life. Don't do to your kid what your father did to you. You know how it feels."

Molina doesn't know if the conversation had any effect on the man. He can only hope. Same with the new young father on the street corner.

Molina asks him why he's here in Norteño gang territory, where he is most specifically not supposed to be. The man replies that his sister just dropped him off, that he's on his way to his girlfriend's house nearby, and that he is not hanging out with anyone else.

He seems animated when talking about his child, a 1-month-old who was in the hospital recently for a respiratory problem. The cop and the gang member share something they have in common. Maybe the only thing.

"So you like being a daddy?" Molina asks.

"Hell, yeah, I love that kid," the man responds.

"Because it's you, right? You look at that baby and you see part of you? He came from you," Molina says.

"That's it, man. I'm trying to get my life straightened out. I got two jobs and the baby."

"That's good," Molina says. "You got to do it for the baby, you know? You can't just keep with that gang stuff. You got someone else you're responsible for, right?"

Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle

Full story: The Badge — S.F. gang cop prefers talking to applying handcuffs

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