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Criminal Justice

In San Francisco, How ‘Gangs’ Are Defined Is Up for Debate

Written by Jonah Owen LambPublished Sep. 21, 2022 • 5:00am
Hayward police officer Julian Cosgriff, during a presentation of the G.R.E.A.T. program (Gang Resistance Education-Based and Training) at Bowman Elementary school on Tuesday Feb. 6, 2018. Police Departments around the Bay Area are restructuring how they identify and deal with gangs. SFPD’s Gang Task Force was “disbanded” in 2021 and rebranded as the Community Violence Reduction Team. | Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

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In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2017, a group of men rushed from a corner store called Rubin’s to confront a trio of rivals.

One of the men from the shop pulled out a weapon and was pistol whipped by someone from the other group. Another threw a bag of glass bottles, which shattered on the sidewalk. Then Thomas Ortiz, another one of the men from the store, fatally shot Ernesto Rosales. 

None of that is under dispute. 

Whether Ortiz acted on behalf of a gang against long-standing Norteño adversaries of the Army Street gang was put in the hands of a jury that on Thursday found him not guilty on all counts. 

Prosecutors had argued that the killing was revenge for the 2014 killing of 14-year-old Rashawn Williams, which happened in front of the same market and led to a spiral of retaliation.

Ortiz was put on trial for his alleged actions. But so, too, was the idea of what even constitutes a gang in San Francisco. 

The issue was raised in court after former District Attorney Chesa Boudin ordered staff to stop charging defendants with gang enhancements, special charges that can add years to a sentence. And it came up months after the San Francisco Police Department overhauled its Gang Task Force, rechristening the unit as the Community Violence Reduction Team. 

Similar backlash against law enforcement characterizations of gang violence has also recently gone to the wayside after a court struck down longstanding restrictions the City Attorney’s Office imposed on the way SFPD addresses criminal street groups. 

The case has also reignited debate over how police and prosecutors should handle gang violence in the city. 

District Attorney Brooke Jenkins—who critiqued Boudin for the way he handled another allegedly gang-related murder trial involving one of her relatives, and was the inital prosecutor handling the Ortiz case—sat in the audience as the jury read its verdict last week. 

A view of Cesar Chavez Street (formerly Army Street) looking toward Bryant Street on January 20, 2016. Over the last few years, members of ‘Army Street gang’ have been involved in a number of assaults, forcing SFPD to think about how it classifies and deals with groups once identified as gangs. | Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

What Makes a Gang?

Unlike many other major cities, San Francisco has few gangs linked to larger criminal enterprises like the Norteños and Sureños, law enforcement experts say. Most are parochial, often linked to just a few blocks.

The exceptions being Sureños and Norteños, which both have hierarchical structures that exist beyond San Francisco and operate as larger criminal enterprises. Whereas most other groups in San Francisco that police have identified as gangs have much less rigid structures. Public defenders have argued that they are simply neighborhood groups whose members break the law from time to time.

In the course of their investigations, police use a number of tools to prove gang affiliation. In the Ortiz case, the testimony of Sgt. Robert Trujillo illustrated the multifaceted process police use. 

SFPD’s gang designation can include a person’s social media posts, their tattoos, who they hang out with, the clothes they wear, who they associate with in jail and what graffiti they scrawl on the urban landscape, Trujillo testified.

Social media, Trujillo said, is often where police find people who “self identify” as gang members by wearing certain colors or flashing hand signs or writing posts alluding to a specific group. 

As an indication of the level of continued criminal activity linked to gangs, at least in terms of how the police see it, 318 incidents since 2018 were gang related, according to Data SF. Still, in the past year the number of such incidents has been a small fraction of those cases with only 27 being gang related

As far as affiliation, police said Ortiz is an Army Street gang member. 

A Google Street View of Ruben’s Market at 2997 Folsom St, San Francisco. On New Year’s Day 2017, a confrontation occurred outside the the store which left Ernesto Rosales dead and Thomas Ortiz accused of his murder.

In the case of the Army Street gang that means donning camo, writing or wearing the number 26 for 26th Street near the Bernal Dwellings, which used to be called the Army Street Projects and is where most of the alleged members are from. Cesar Chavez Street, which the Bernal Dwellings are located, used to be called Army Street.

In a report on the Army Street Gang in 2018, another officer who testified, Sgt. Scott Lau, wrote that the group has been around since the 1990s and its territory has centered on Bernal Dwellings. The group, he wrote, uses a number of symbols such as A+, Army St, 26 Mob and ASG and has been involved in robberies, battery and even murder. 

“The primary activity of the Army St. gang is crime,” Trujillo wrote. 

Retired Gang Task Force member Leonard Broburg said that often when members of any of these groups moved out of the county and committed a crime, SFPD gang experts were summoned as experts in their prosecution. 

While there are more organized gangs in San Francisco, like the Norteños, the murky definitions of gangs and their members is hard to dispute because the expertise is so specialized, San Francisco deputy public defender Yali Corea-Levy argued. 

“How do you impeach them, prove that they are wrong?” he asked in court. 

There is no textbook, no outside expert to refute the gang designations made by the police department, he added. 

“All I can do is call other cops and demonstrate they can’t agree,” Corea-Levy said. “It’s not a real area of expertise.”

In the Ortiz trial, Corea-Levy asked three officers to identify Army Street Gang members—and all three officers disagreed but for one name. 

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In a picture shown to the jury, Corea-Levy noted that a Bernal Dwelling resident, who was involved in the fight that led to the killing, was shown beside his mother, who wore a camouflage sweatshirt with the word “army” emblazoned across it—one of many clues police would say indicate gang affiliation.

Gang Task Force? 

SFPD’s Gang Task Force was born more than four decades ago, in 1977, after a bloody Chinatown shooting known as the Golden Dragon massacre in which convicted gang boss Raymond “Shrimpboy” Chow was present. The gunfire left five dead and 11 injured. Initially focused on Asian gangs, the unit began to investigate Latino and Black gangs in the 1980s, according to the SFPD.

Last year, however, the Gang Task Force was “disbanded” and rebranded with the department adding 10 officers and rechristening the unit as the Community Violence Reduction Team. 

Sgt. Kevin Knoble, right, of SFPD’s Gang Task Force speaks with a young man who is on the city’s gang injunction while he patrols through Visitacion Valley on Thursday, August 23, 2012. | Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

“There is no more Gang Task Force,” Chief Bill Scott said to the San Francisco Police Commision in May of 2021, adding that it was a total restructuring. 

The new unit is meant to work with civilian groups to end gun violence and the Gun Crime Intelligence Center, to try and understand the complicated causes of such violence. 

But even though its name has been softened, how it operates when it comes to identifying gangs remains fairly unchanged, Corea-Levy said.

“‘Gang’ is a label put on by law enforcement,” he said, “which is something the unit, whatever you call it, continues to do.” 

As if to affirm as much, an April memo that Sgt. Trujillo wrote in the Ortiz case notes that the unit is no longer the Gang Task Force—but it was penned on stationary still marked with the Gang Task Force letterhead. The department’s website also still lists the task force under its old name.

The Violence Continues

Regardless of whether a group fits the police definition of gangs, there’s no denying that rivalries among various factions have led to killings in San Francisco.

A 2021 analysis found that 12 groups were responsible for the majority of violence committed in the city. Those cliques—in the Bayview, Visitacion Valley, the Fillmore and the Mission—were responsible for most shootings from 2017 to mid-2020, according to police data. All told, the analysis noted, roughly 200 people are responsible for most gun violence in San Francisco. 

Thomas Ortiz, who was found not guilty on all counts in the recent murder trial for a 2017 killing, several years ago. Courtesy photo

But groups come and go, making it all the more complicated to identify hierarchies and affiliations. In the case of the so-called Army Street Gang, it has all but dissipated since the 2017 killing, as police say its more active members have either been murdered, moved or gotten out of the game. 

As for Ortiz, who was released last week after a four-year jail stint, he is simply happy the jury agreed with his version of events, Corea-Levy said: that is, that he was acting in self-defense.

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Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at [email protected]




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