The Badge — S.F. task force tackles gang violence

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 The bullets have been flying in Visitacion Valley, and people are afraid. More afraid than usual.

"You need to get busy and find them boys," one woman says sternly to San Francisco police Sgt. Kevin Knoble as he drives through the Sunnydale projects. "People are afraid to come out of their houses."

Sgt. Kevin Knoble is a member of the San Francisco Police Gang Task Force. After a gang killing, he knows he has only a few hours to keep the cycle of violence from exploding. San Francisco Chronicle photo by Brant Ward
"It would be a lot easier if someone would come forward and help us out," Knoble responds.

"You know, people are afraid," she said. "You need to do your job."

"Yeah," Knoble says. "I hear you."

It started with the shooting death of Byron Smith the weekend before last. Police say Smith was a powerful gang figure in the south side. He was shot by a couple of guys on bicycles.

That was followed by another murder last week, which might have been retaliation for Smith's death.

And Thursday morning, around 8 o'clock, a handful of young men were involved in a shootout, but apparently no one was hit.

Moments after Smith was found dead, the alert went out to the SFPD Gang Task Force. Lt. Ernie Ferrando, who commands the unit, said his first thought was to get his officers into the neighborhood to help find the killers and try to quell retaliation shootings.

"Here we go again," Ferrando says. "We have to get out there and try to disrupt the cycle. If not, the killings and shootings will go on and on."

Knoble, 44, has worked the streets of Ingleside and Visitacion Valley for eight years, the last two as a member of the gang task force. He knows the people who died, and his job is to put together the pieces of why and by whom.

All week long, Knoble and other officers from the task force and Ingleside Station flood the neighborhood. You can't drive through the projects without seeing a police car, marked or otherwise, cruising the streets and parking lots.

Children play in the grassy areas between buildings, but the area is noticeably quiet. Only a few adults are hanging out. Some are gathered around cars in parking lots, and everyone seems nervous and jumpy, worried that shots might ring out at any moment.

"Man, there's some very bad people out there," one young man says to Knoble as the officer pauses in a parking lot to chat. "I don't know what's on their minds."

Knoble has an idea of what has caused the shootings, but he won't say because the investigation is continuing. He picks up bits and pieces of information from people on the street and tries to put it all together.

Sometimes, you just don't know what prompts a gang member to shoot someone. Occasionally, he says, very rarely, it's just a random act. More often, someone has been disrespected or words have been exchanged.

"When we were kids, we settled these kinds of arguments with fists," he says. "Now, they go get a gun."

Knoble is a well-known figure around the projects. Some people like him; some don't. And after eight years in the district, he knows the residents well. He knows how to read body language in the same way a friend knows if you're happy or angry based on the way you stand or talk or walk.

He tells the story of a gangbanger he knew years ago. The man made it clear that he didn't like Knoble, didn't like his banter or chitchat. Didn't like Knoble's attempts to get to know him or gather information from him. So Knoble let it be.

Later, he'd gotten information that suggested the young man might have been involved in a homicide. Knoble was driving through the area and spotted the man coming out of a store. The man saw Knoble and their eyes locked.

"Hey Knoble!" the man blurted, and Knoble knew something was up. He had cause to search the man, and the chase was on. The man was carrying the murder weapon.

It works the other way, too. The bad guys learn how the cops operate, who works what days and how they are likely to function in an investigation.

In the aftermath of the shootings, there is fear in the neighborhood, but there is also anger and indignation. This is an area plagued with poverty and violence, and people seem sick of it.

Knoble mentioned to one woman that one of the shootings occurred around 8 a.m.

"Why are they out shooting each other at that hour?" she wants to know. "Why aren't they at work or in school?"

Knoble has no answer for that.

He likes this area and he knows almost everyone he sees. They're good people, he says, stuck in a bad situation. Even the majority of the gang members, he says, are good kids who do what they have to do to survive on the street.

Only a handful, he said, are really violent and without hope. But they're the ones who terrorize an entire community.

"Some of those boys just like bangin'," one man tells Knoble.

"Some of those guys just like that thug life," Knoble agrees. "Not all, but some."

Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle

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