Despite drop in crime, East Palo Alto has mixed record of loosening the grip of gangs
They were gunned down on sunny days: Chariece Chew, Christopher Baker, Jonathan Alcazar, Stoney Gipson and, finally, Lamont Coleman.
And, according to gang investigators, the turf feuds and drug vendettas behind this spasm of violence all traced back to one city: East Palo Alto.
It began on a bright Sunday afternoon in late September 2012. Armed with two handguns, a trio of young men drove a silver Toyota 4Runner up Highway 101. Near a Belmont neighborhood off the Holly Street exit, they spotted their rival, Chew, in a Dodge Charger. At least a dozen shots were fired as the vehicle carrying Chew, its doors pierced by bullets, screeched onto the freeway, swerving through lanes before crashing into a construction fence.
A week later, Baker, 21, was shot several times and bled to death on Terra Villa Avenue in East Palo Alto. Two nights after that, four young men with handguns waited for Gipson outside the Impala nightclub in San Francisco. The 27-year-old’s lifeless body was found in the early morning darkness.
The skies were clear on a Monday afternoon in January 2013 when bullets hailed on Illinois Street in East Palo Alto, killing 24-year-old Alcazar. On a Saturday evening two weeks later, 21-year-old Coleman died of gunshot wounds on the city’s Capitol Avenue.
The attempted murder of Chew and the killings of Baker, Gipson, Alcazar and Coleman led the San Mateo County District Attorney to launch an 18-month investigation that officials consider the county’s most extensive crackdown on gang activity. Investigators nicknamed their operation “Sunny Day,” a reference to the code words that gang members occasionally used to signal a successful hit.
Closely monitoring cellular and GPS data, along with youthful boasts on social media, the investigators uncovered an ongoing series of gang retaliations that extended past East Palo Alto’s borders into cities from Menlo Park to San Francisco. The electronic trail led to the indictment of 16 people, 11 of whom were from East Palo Alto. None have yet to go to trial.
Law enforcement officials continue to pursue leads, according to the East Palo Alto Police Chief Lee Violett, who noted that this year the city has experienced a decrease in shootings and other types of violent crime. During the first half of 2013, East Palo Alto had seven homicides. Since last August there have been two.
Steve Wagstaffe, the San Mateo County District Attorney, believes Operation Sunny Day served to warn gang members of the severe consequences of their violent activity.
“I had a person from [East Palo Alto] come in last week and said she’s lived in EPA for over 20 years,” Wagstaffe said in April. “The shocking thing is that since this all went public … she had not heard a gunshot or a police siren.”
A city in transition
Though it remains one of the few places in the Silicon Valley where housing costs are within reach for low-income families, East Palo Alto has seen dramatic change in recent decades. Latinos make up the majority in the once-predominantly black city, and even this demographic shift might be fleeting. The latest tech boom has caused home prices to soar, as start-ups and behemoths like Facebook encroach along the city’s edges, pricing out longtime residents.
The demand for housing among skilled tech workers would have been unfathomable in 1992, when the city boasted the country’s highest murder rate. Since then, East Palo Alto has seen a dramatic drop in crime, including 345 fewer homicides, rapes, armed assaults and robberies in 2012 than in 1992.
But one problem persists — the city has struggled to lose its unwanted reputation as a center for gang activity in San Mateo County.
In 2012, the situation became particularly acute for residents, some of who found themselves living in a war zone. The number of assaults involving a weapon jumped from 129 to 230 between 2011 and 2012, and again remained high last year.
Typically gangs do not target innocent people, but bystanders are sometimes caught in the crossfire. On an early Sunday morning in 2011, shots on Wisteria Drive fatally wounded 3-month-old Izak Jesus. Law enforcement officials often refer to the “baby Izak” case to illustrate the communitywide toll of gang violence.
Last year’s fatal shooting of 16-year-old Jose Luis Quinones led then-East Palo Alto Police Chief Ron Davis to declare a “crime emergency,” requiring officers to work overtime and canceling off days. While Davis declared the emergency over three weeks later, gang warfare continued to rattle the city in the months that followed.
Gang members contributed to a rise in burglaries within the county, according to officials from the San Mateo Gang Task Force and the East Palo Alto Police Department. In addition to stealing firearms, gang members tapped into the statewide prescription drug epidemic by breaking into expensive homes in the middle of the day. They’d often head straight for the medicine cabinet, investigators said.
“It’s gotten so bad that if you have an open house and you’re selling your home, your Realtor will tell you to remove all prescription pills,” said Sgt. Leo Capovilla of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office Gang Investigative Unit.
History of gang violence
Violence in East Palo Alto often takes the form of shootings, and inter-gang disputes nearly always involve “turf,” or areas in the city where gangs can sell drugs.
The gangs have changed over time, however, based on generational and demographic shifts. In the 1980s, East Palo Alto was home to the Midtown Hogs, a predominantly African-American gang whose primary source of income was crack cocaine. The Midtown Hogs are partly blamed for the city’s crack epidemic of the late eighties and early nineties.
Midtown Hogs evolved into the Taliban, which most recently fought Da Vill, another predominantly African-American gang, and Sac Street, a Norteño subset, according to members of the San Mateo County Gang Task Force, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they often work undercover.
East Palo Alto’s demographic shift has helped determine which gangs pervade the city. In recent years, African-American gangs spread to other parts of the Bay Area, while Latino gangs stayed closer to home.
Although most gangs are divided along racial lines, some, like “Sac Street,” have absorbed African-Americans and Latinos who live on Sacramento Street.
Drugs — namely marijuana — are the gangs’ primary financial pipeline, according to the task force.
Task force members said a handful of families living in East Palo Alto have connections to Mexican cartels, which smuggle drugs across the border and give them to gang members to sell on city streets. Most of the clientele is not from East Palo Alto, the task force explained. Located along Highway 101, the city is a convenient stopping point for outsiders to make a quick purchase and then speed away.
While the Norteños funnel some drug funds to Nuestra Familia, a Mexican-American gang operating from state and federal prisons, much of the money is spent on accessories that promote image. One task force member recalls finding a closet filled with Air Jordans, each pair worth around $100. Angel Santuario, a community organizer for Peninsula Interfaith Action, said “bling” gives gang members status.
“Some of it may be about liberation and freedom,” he said. “There’s a huge need in our communities to feel respected, to feel like we have dignity. For some of those folks, that’s why they go out and buy brand new Nikes. It’s to be respected in their world.”
Often divided along racial and ethnic lines, the gangs capitalize on the vulnerability of youth in search of identity and community. Many gang members show their allegiance through the colors they wear and the tattoos they sport.
The Sac Street gang uses the Stanford University logo as its symbol — the S stands for its street name, the red for the gang’s color and the tree for marijuana, a primary source of income.
The Norteños operate along the border between Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. In late 2012, a generational struggle for leadership triggered a significant increase in shootings and assaults in East Palo Alto, according to the task force.
“The younger generation of the gang members are hanging out separately,” one task force member said. “They started feuding with each other … they’re part of the same gang [but] killing each other.”
Operation Sunny Day
The four murders and attempted murder in 2012 and early 2013 sent San Mateo County officials on a manhunt that would unravel a longstanding gang war between Da Vill, Sac Street and the Taliban. The war extended past East Palo Alto’s borders into Menlo Park, Belmont, Redwood City and San Francisco.
In the following months, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office partnered with every police agency in the county and three federal agencies — Homeland Security, the U.S. Marshals and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Detectives obtained warrants to monitor GPS and cellular data, as well as recorded telephone conversations from inside jail cells to understand the inner workings of gang activity.
Wagstaffe, the District Attorney, emphasized that investigators based their case entirely on electronic surveillance. “They were right down to the same area where [crime] was located,” he said.
As detectives listened in on conversations, one phrase stood out: “It’s a sunny day in East Palo Alto.” Based on the timing, they concluded the phrase could mean only one thing. The killings were being planned and carried out.
Social media also helped connect the dots. According to the task force, the notion of “respect” — or instilling fear — and an obsession with “image” motivate gang members to use social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to brag about their activities.
At the same time, social media desensitizes the severity of crime, according to a task force member, who said gang members sometimes post videos of a violent act, evoking a “mentality that it’s funny to shoot someone.”
On March 18, 2013, Wagstaffe announced the indictments. The 16 suspects were charged with murder, attempted murder, coercion of witnesses, drug trafficking and illegal firearms possession.
The Police Department and Community Outreach
Although Da Vill and Sac Street are based in East Palo Alto and the Taliban has reached across the border into eastern Menlo Park, Operation Sunny Day required little involvement from the city police.
Violett said the multi-agency probe served to offset East Palo Alto’s “finite resources,” allowing his department to assign just one detective to the investigation.
To fight gangs in recent years, the Police Department also has enlisted the help of neighboring departments and promoted community-policing programs, often funded by state and federal grants.
In March 2011, East Palo Alto implemented Operation Ceasefire, a federally funded initiative designed to target and motivate youth with violent pasts to reshape their lives.
Kimberly Smith, the former director of Operation Ceasefire, managed the program’s law enforcement side and served as an intermediary between the city and the county. One of the program’s initial challenges was to relieve tension between the need to promote community relations and the need to crack down on gang violence, she said.
“The community was very sensitive to having a lot of people all of a sudden being labeled as gang members,” Smith said. “That created pushback and resistance.”
Further complicating matters is that the city’s Latino population — about 65 percent — has trust issues with the police, said Angel Santuario of Peninsula Interfaith Action, a community nonprofit. Santuario has heard complaints that the department makes it difficult for citizens to report suspected criminal activity anonymously. Because residents fear retribution, they are reluctant to come forward.
City Councilman Ruben Abrica believes community-policing programs have helped improve those relations. In March, after rumors circulated that the city might outsource police services to the county Sheriff’s Office, hundreds showed up at a council meeting to protest.
“It’s not every day the community comes out to defend the police,” Abrica said. “Even young people were saying that the Police Department is not perfect but we can work with the police.”
Community groups, notably members of the clergy and youth organizations, helped close gaps between the community and the police, according to Smith and Melvin Gaines, the department’s special projects manager. Gaines said community policing reflects a change in a past mentality that police officers could “arrest [their] way out of a problem.”
Operation Ceasefire approached 83 potential participants, many with gang backgrounds. Forty-eight agreed to take part and 18 remain active. Two of the suspects arrested in Operation Sunny Day were Ceasefire candidates, according to Gaines.
The grant money for Operation Ceasefire ran out in December 2013. Although the city reapplied, the application was not approved because “other agencies had more compelling proposals,” Gaines said.
Reliance on such money poses its own challenges, he added. While grants allow for East Palo Alto to experiment with a range of community initiatives, the city is also under constant pressure to find a steady source of funding. Sarah Lawrence, the director of UC Berkeley’s School of Law’s Policy Analysis and Program Evaluation, sees little alternative, saying this is the “nature of federal, local and state dynamics of funding streams.”
Looking back, Smith thinks Operation Ceasefire could have been more successful had law enforcement been more aggressive.
“The whole message of Ceasefire is that ‘we hope you guys get some assistance [but] if you call our bluff we’re coming after you,’” she said. “And we never went after anyone.”
While she does not advocate for a “police state,” Smith said, having a greater number of police officers on the street is an inherent deterrent.
Violett said he could not speak to Operation Ceasefire’s effectiveness because the program was implemented under Davis, but he acknowledged that a key component to any community-policing program is to “back up what you say you’re going to do.”
Gaines believes Operation Ceasefire’s future will depend on whether community groups, once a financial incentive is removed, will continue to work with the police or shift resources to other initiatives.
While Operation Sunny Day is credited with helping to curb gang violence, this state of peace is likely temporary, according to the task force. Gang members may just be taking a step back to try to anticipate what law enforcement will do next, all while leaving a lingering power vacuum.