Gang crime in the city of San Jose is down in all categories this year, according to the San Jose Police Department.
City officials credit their enhanced gang suppression efforts over the summer, which included police saturation of known gang hotspots and the Mayor’s Gang Task Force stepping up.
That made gang suppression the headline of the summer in San Jose and, according to SJPD press releases, it paid off.
However, inside sources at the department told NBC Bay Area that SJPD is misleading the public about gang violence with those numbers.
A Fair Comparison?
Statistics from the police department show gang-related homicides dropped the most from last year, down 43 percent from January to August, with eight gang-related homicides this year compared to 14 in 2012.
However, for its 2013 numbers, SJPD did not reveal to the public at the time of the press release in September, that it has changed its criteria for determining if a homicide is “gang-related.”
SJPD then compared the 2013 numbers based on the new, stricter criteria to the 2012 numbers, which revealed an apparent dramatic drop in gang homicides.
What They Didn’t Tell You
SJPD did not tell the public about the new standards when it announced the drop in gang homicides in September: Back in June, SJPD had implemented those new, stricter standards for determining if a homicide is categorized as being gang-related.
The new criteria, according to SJPD, means a homicide may only be classified as gang-related if police have evidence to show the motivation behind the crime was to benefit a gang agenda. Meaning, if a gang member commits a murder but police do not have evidence to show the intent was to further a gang, the crime will not be classified as SJPD as gang-related.
Prior to the change, individual detectives assigned to the case would more subjectively determine if a case was gang-related based on evidence and witness statements.
The purpose of the updated classification, according to an email from SJPD to the Investigative Unit, is to make SJPD’s classifications of gang crimes more consistent and accurate and fall more closely in line with the California penal code’s definition of criminal street gang crime, which focuses on motive of crime.
SJPD then retroactively applied this stricter definition of ”gang-related” to all homicides in 2013.
Insiders Speak Out
The numbers based on the new classification system compared to last year’s numbers revealed a steep decline in gang homicides that several police insiders didn’t think was painting an accurate picture of gang violence in San Jose.
Those insiders, with firsthand knowledge of gang-related crimes, spoke with the Investigative Unit. Two of them only agreed to go on camera anonymously, out of fear of retaliation.
We will call them “Jessica” and “Gary.”
When asked if gang crime had decreased, Jessica shook her head, saying, “No, it’s not true.”
“I think the public has a false perception of what’s really going on in their neighborhoods, and for the city to come out and basically say things are hunky dory,” Jessica said. “It’s crap.”
“I think my first reaction was shock, then anger,” he said. “We know it’s not true. It’s a lie.”
Jessica and Gary think the comparison is unfair.
“If they were to report [gang crimes] truly and accurately, you would see that the gang homicides are actually the same or probably higher,” Jessica said.
“Some of our homicides that are gang-related are not being classified as gang-related,” Gary said. “I’m saying there’s more; I’m saying there are homicides that have gang ties, associations, gang members involved that they don’t want to classify as a gang homicide.”
It was the night before Memorial Day, 20-year-old Justin “DJ” Watkins was walking home to his uncle’s house on his way home from his shift at GameStop in the Westfield Oakridge Mall. He had just moved to San Jose three months prior from Ohio.
Hood up, headphones in, backpack on. It was three days before his birthday, one he wouldn’t get to celebrate.
Watkins was shot to death on Hayes Street, near Oak Grove High School in South San Jose, where he planned to coach youth football with his uncle.
“It wasn’t that he was fearless,” uncle Jerrell Watkins said. “He just didn’t have any idea just how much danger he was in.”
Watkins told the Investigative Unit that police said the night of the crime they believe it was gang-related. Even though DJ, new to town, did not belong to a gang, he was walking through a gang neighborhood and there were multiple witnesses.
However, SJPD has not classified DJ’s case as one of the eight gang-related homicides this year. No suspects have been identified. It remains unsolved.
“So you mean to tell me my nephew got killed in a gang area and now you are saying it’s not gang-related?” Watkins said. “How many other cases have you done that to?”
“I don’t know how stupid they think we are, but I’m not that stupid,” Watkins said.
Watkins has since moved to Tennessee to avoid the pain caused by his nephew’s untimely death.
“There’s something about losing a child,” Watkins said through tears. “I’ve heard people say all the time, you never want to experience that, because a part of you just dies. I can honestly say that through my brother’s eyes-- I know him well, a part of him died.”
SJPD told the Investigative Unit it changed the classification of a case from gang-related to non-gang related after retroactively applying the new criteria.
The murder of 59-year-old Francisco Lugo, a father of six, on the 200 block of North 12th street back in June, became the city’s 22nd homicide of the year.
Lugo was bashed in the head while trying to help a disabled child who was being harassed. He was hospitalized and died from his injuries days later.
The case was originally classified as gang-related because detectives determined gang members were involved, but when SJPD retroactively applied their new, stricter requirements to call a case gang-related, it was changed.
“We have a problem. We have a gang problem. It exists,” former gang member turned activist Robert Rios told NBC Bay Area.
Rios spends his time trying to curb violence by working with gang members. His message is peace.
He goes out to many of the homicide scenes and conducts his own interviews.
The Investigative Unit asked Rios about the case of Francisco Lugo.
“I think it was gang-related, myself,” Rios said.
“A lot of these cases are gang-related because there are gang members involved,” he said. “I think there are more [cases] a whole lot more than what they [SJPD] say.”
He believes neighborhoods need to know the truth about the number of gang-related crimes because it affects innocent people.
“We have to end it,” Rios said. “It could be my kids, my friends’ kids, who are the next victims.”
An example of a homicide case not considered gang related by SJPD took place on May 26, 2012. Two teenagers were murdered next to Kohl’s department store in McKee Plaza in East San Jose.
Police have not classified this double homicide as gang-related. However, the suspected killers are both charged in another case as gang members.
It was an attempted murder in which the district attorney has charged them with a gang enhancement count, meaning the attempted murder was committed to benefit their gang. Police notes identify the suspects as known Norteno gang members.
However, the teenagers’ homicides are not classified as gang-related by SJPD.
Now They Tell Us
Not until after the Investigative Unit started asking questions did SJPD send out an updated press release dated Oct. 26 which finally told the public about the change in standard for classification, saying:
“The department modified the manner in which it classifies gang-related homicides to provide a more accurate picture of the level of gang-related homicides in the city.”
It comes nearly two months after SJPD first announced the gang-related crime numbers that they included the asterisk under this table, indicating a different standard.
*California Penal Code 186.22 criteria applied
After months of researching cases, the Investigative Unit requested an interview with the San Jose Police Department’s Chief, Lieutenant overseeing homicide Unit and the Public information Officer, Sgt. Heather Randol, to discuss classification of gang cases. All requests were denied.
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