By Jaxon Van Derbeken, The San Francisco Chronicle
A police effort to identify and target San Francisco's most violent predators and subject them to federal prosecution has helped slash the city's homicide rate in the second half of 2004 by nearly 40 percent, authorities say.
The city had been averaging nine slayings a month by midyear, a rate that would have pushed the total to well over 100 for 2004 and made this the deadliest year in San Francisco since 1995.
The burst of killings promptly moved to the top of new Mayor Gavin Newsom's agenda. He showed up at homicide scenes and talked with potential witnesses, and when investigators grumbled, he made life hard for the Police Department. At one point, he called police homicide clearance rates "a problem that needs to be solved." A month later, they were "an outrage and inexcusable. "
In the second half of the year, the number of homicides dropped to roughly five a month -- a turnaround that dispelled fears of a long summer of gang bloodshed in the most violent-prone neighborhoods and some public housing projects.
The city's homicide total still exceeds the 70 recorded in 2003. Through Dec. 22, there had been 85 killings in San Francisco this year, but only 32 of those have happened since July 1.
The most important factor in the decline, police say, is authorities' attempt to take those they consider the most violent, incorrigible criminals off the streets with the help of the federal "Triggerlock" law, which provides for prison terms of 10 years or more for felons who are caught with a gun.
"We are targeting specific people -- the most violent people, with the worst records," said Lt. John Murphy of the gang task force. "We're not just doing a shotgun approach. We have picked a certain number of people from a specific gang and picked them up."
"The program is definitely working," said Capt. Kevin Cashman of the department's investigations bureau. "We're very happy about it."
Authorities have had trouble building criminal cases or even arresting suspects in gang homicides, partly because fear of retaliation makes witnesses reluctant to come forward. Of the 43 killings this year that investigators consider gang-related, police have made murder arrests in only five and have secured warrants for three other suspects.
Often, however, investigators are convinced that they know who's responsible for gun violence, which has caused 60 of this year's homicides. "That's based upon information we have from confidential informants, and information from victims' families about witnesses who will not come forward to police," said Lt. John Hennessey, head of the homicide detail.
That frustration led police last spring to draw up a list of 62 people they believed were responsible for a disproportionate share of the violence, including a "Top 40" list of suspects out of custody and living in the southeastern part of the city. The idea was to arrest them on whatever charges police could find, then check for guns.
Twenty of those 40 have since been arrested and charged -- not with murder, but with violating the Triggerlock law or narcotics offenses.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas "Tippy" Mazzucco said his boss, U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan, had stressed the need to step up efforts earlier this year.
"When the homicide rate really picked up, Mr. Ryan was concerned that we do what we can to help the city," Mazzucco said.
Similar efforts have been started in other cities, including Richmond and East Palo Alto, he said.
Despite the decrease in homicides, not everyone in southeastern neighborhoods thinks police are doing enough. Cathy Tyson, a leader of the group Mothers of Homicide Victims, said the results have been mixed at best.
"They are making arrests, and people are getting right back out," Tyson said.
"I'm glad the total number is lower," she said, but added that police appear to be focusing on members of one Bayview gang, called Westmob.
"I don't see them making those arrests in other neighborhoods," she said.
Another parent of a homicide victim, Barbara George, a Muni driver whose son was slain in 1995, said she is encouraged by the police effort.
"I think that is something they should have stepped up a long time ago," she said. "We have long been saying, 'Pick them up for anything and get them off the street.' "
San Francisco's federal public defender, Barry Portman, expressed skepticism about the effort, saying his office is getting the same mix of "street level" cases that it has since the Triggerlock program began 13 years ago.
One recent case, he said, is indicative of those that don't belong in the federal system. It involved 47-year-old Kevin Ford, a three-decade drug addict who was caught with heroin near Potrero Hill. Police found a gun in the drawer of his government-subsidized housing unit.
Ford, who was not on the police "Top 40," had felony convictions for drugs and receiving stolen property. That qualified him for Triggerlock prosecution, and he was convicted this month and faces 10 years in federal prison.
"If Triggerlock is designed to get the most dangerous felons off the street, then this man is not the right candidate," said Ford's federal defender, Ron Tyler. "This is a man who used to be homeless, who is now just basically above that level. It's definitely an abuse of federal prosecutorial powers."
Mazzucco said he was not familiar with the Ford case, but added: "There's no good reason for a convicted felon to be carrying a gun."
Police say one statistic shows they have the right people in mind. Of the 40 people who were targeted last spring, eight have since been killed in street crimes, they say.
"We're looking for the baddest of the bad, and they were the baddest of the bad, so they ended up being killed," Murphy said.
One of the eight was Ronnie "Uda" Allen, 21, who was shot to death Dec. 11 when he went to a Bayshore Boulevard auto shop to pick up a car for a friend.
Deputy Chief Morris Tabak called Allen the "poster child" of the kind of felon that police are trying to take off the street.
Police, in fact, had made a habit of arresting Allen. He was taken into custody six times in the six months before his death, including twice in one day for the same probation violation. None of the charges stuck, and he was never tied directly to possession of a gun.
The relentless police attention angered Allen's attorney as well as his family.
"They told me the crime rate dropped when he was in," said his attorney, Joe O'Sullivan, "and they think he is responsible for five to seven homicides. I told them, 'Charge him.' "
Allen's sister, Natasha Madaris, said he was a "loving husband, father, brother and friend" who had been slandered by police and the media. Her family, she said, received death threats because of publicity about killings that police had no evidence he committed and "that he never spent a day in jail for. "
Others who police think are responsible for the violence have never been convicted of felonies, so the Police Department has tried to tag them with records in drug arrests. That strategy, however, has run into snags.
One drug operation in the Bayview District in May netted 27 suspects, including eight on the "Top 40." Many of those arrested simply said they had a drug problem, however, making them eligible for drug court, which could clear them of a felony.
Police objected, and District Attorney Kamala Harris has pushed to disqualify people caught selling to undercover officers, so that drug court does not become a "dumping ground" for cases that should be handled as felonies.
Prosecutors want any offenders who go to drug court to admit to a felony and have the conviction held over their heads for one year while they complete the program. During that time, they could be prosecuted under Triggerlock if caught with a gun.
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said his office will oppose any change, saying he has seen no evidence that dealers or violent criminals are taking advantage of the drug court system.
Officer Len Broberg of the Police Department's gang task force said federal prosecution is the last recourse after many gang offenders escape serious penalties in the state system.
Broberg said gang members scoff at the time they might serve in jail or even state prison.
"The attitude is, 'This is nothing -- I can do this on my head. I'll do a couple years, and I'll get out,' " Broberg said. "Then (under Triggerlock), they go away for a long time."
Those who remain, he said, "still have that attitude -- they're not going to catch me."