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At police workshop, a warning primer on gangs

on December 9, 2009

The Oakland Police Department community gang awareness workshop Thursday began with some technical challenges, but the presenting officer, Doug Keely, pressed on.  “We’re struggling to get this projector going, but we’ll start talking about the Hispanic gangs,” he said.

Several dozen people had gathered at St. Anthony’s Catholic School in the Rancho San Antonio neighborhood for the workshop, arranged by the police and by City Councilmember Pat Kernighan (District 2) so that residents and parents might learn about gang trends and  signs of gang-related behavior.  Now they shifted in their chairs for a better view of the laptop screen another officer had turned to face them.  Many still wore their overcoats in the cold gymnasium, and a few wore headsets through which they could hear an interpreter translate the presentation.

Keely began by showing a photo of a young man and said that at age 14 or so, five feet tall and 85 pounds, he was exactly the type of person gangs were recruiting. “This is somebody they can count on to pull the trigger,” Keely said, pointing out that kids this age are easily influenced and parents and residents need to keep the closest eye on them. “It doesn’t take a lot of strength, it doesn’t take a lot of presence, but he has the attitude they need,” he said.

Keely has been investigating gang activity in Oakland for five years, and he gives expert testimony in gang-related court cases.  He presented pictures of basic Hispanic gang signs (when a gang member shapes their fingers in a specific way to represent his gang), symbols (specific numbers, tattoos or graffiti), and clothing, and he discussed the ways gangs generally operate.

Keely’s presentation focused mostly on Oakland’s Latino gangs, which he said can be divided into three main groups: the Norteños, the Sureños and the Border Brothers.  Both the Norteños and Sureños are influenced from separate parent prison gangs, Nuestra Familia and the Mexican Mafia, respectively, according to Keely.

The symbols under which each gang operates are an echo back to their parent gangs, Keely said. The Sureños use the number 13, he said, for the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, or the letter “M” for Mexican Mafia. Tattoos, graffiti, belt buckles and wherever else they choose to leave their mark will tend to bear some form of “13:” XIII, X3, a tattooed dot followed by three tattooed dots, etc.  The Norteños use the number “14,” for the fourteenth letter of the alphabet, or the letter “N” for Nuestra Familia.

According to Keely, the Norteños wear red clothing, handkerchiefs, belts, or crosses; the Sureños wear similar articles of clothing in blue, and the Border Brothers in black.  Many will also get tattoos featuring a series of three or four dots, the numbers 13 (Sureños) or 14 (Norteños), or tattoos between their fingers, visible when the gang member flashes their gang sign.

Keely listed off several gangs in certain neighborhoods, such as 57th Avenue and International Boulevard and the “Ghost Town” area of 34th and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, and warned residents to be cautious when moving through those areas. Many of the gangs are “turf-type” gangs, Keely said. “They’re watching every car that goes by, because they believe it’s their turf and nobody is allowed to drive through this area,” he said.

Keely warned that the clothing the gang members are wearing is more subtle than it’s been in the past, when gang members wore handkerchiefs and shirts with their gang’s color. Today many gangs will wear white t-shirt and blue jeans, but their belts are colored.

Community members had the opportunity to raise questions during the workshop.  One said he wanted to know more about gangs other than Latino gangs.  The officers apologized that they would not be able to present everything they had intended, as one officer scheduled to present (an expert on the area’s Asian gangs) was involved with a critical incident elsewhere.

Keely touched briefly on female gangs, saying there seemed to be a rise in the number of young females involved in gang activity, especially after the airing of the Discovery Channel’s “Gang Wars” documentary that featured gangs in Oakland.

One resident, a Spanish-speaking woman, voiced concerns over graffiti in her neighborhood and the fact that she couldn’t understand what it said.  Officer Keely suggested residents call the city public works agency graffiti abatement program ((510) 615-5566), or paint over the graffiti themselves.

One participant, a young male resident and former gang member, asked the officers what they were actually doing to help the gang members on the street.

“I can’t be their best friends. I can work with them, and I have respect for them, but I can’t be someone they can go ‘Hey, it’s my friend the officer,’” Keely said. “My job also is to do enforcement.  I protect the people of that neighborhood who’s getting picked on by those gang members.”

The presenting officers – Keely and the area’s assigned problem solving officers – encouraged residents to keep an eye out for gang-related activity, and to contact the police department if they recognize it. Oakland residents should contact their local problem solving officer, he said, or (Click here for the directory) or call the department’s non-emergency number at (510) 777-3333.

Keely emphasized that parents can play a big role in controlling gang problems simply by talking to their kids. “You have to be really involved with your kids lives,” he said. “You have to be more important than the gang itself.”

Keely said parents concerned about their children could get in touch with multiple resources by dialing the Alameda County health, housing and human services at  2-1-1.

“A lot of parents don’t know what their kids are doing and they have questions,” he said in an interview afterward.  “I’d like these parents to learn right away that when their kids are getting involved in that, they can help pull them out or help give them direction.”

Several community organizations, such as Harbor House, the San Antonio Recreation Center, and outreach workers funded under Measure Y, had also set up information booths.  “Measure Y” refers to the Violence Prevention and Public Safety Act of 2004 passed by the Oakland voters, which funds community policing, school programs and other resources aimed at decreasing violence in Oakland.

Audience reaction to the workshop was mixed. Albert Lozano, a retired police officer and president of the Latino Advisory Committee on Crime, said after the presentation that he was concerned it had failed to communicate effectively some key information, such as the specific ways people can get involved to keep crime off their streets or an explanation of the role of the local problem-solving officer.  (According to the Measure Y resolution, a problem-solving officer is assigned to each beat in Oakland to concentrate solely on the issues of that area and maintain contact between the residents and the officers).

Lozano himself is directly involved in efforts to suppress gang activity; he wrote one of the workshop’s handouts before his retirement in 2004.  His organization works with families of kids who are “acting out.”

One case worker, another former gang member who asked not to be identified, said he had not been entirely satisfied with Keely’s presentation–he took issue with the accuracy of some of the gang history, he said, and added that he believed police officers should consider handling the relationship with the community – parents, gang members, everyone – differently. “If you’re not here to build a relationship with them, you cannot expect them to respect you,” he said in an interview following the presentation.

“To get the community involved, you have to build that relationship,” he continued. “You can’t expect that just because you’re the law, to come in and get answers. It doesn’t work that way.”

He said he did appreciate the fact that officers involved with gangs were giving the community presentation themselves, but said he thought the police should avoid instilling more fear in residents.  “People from the community should stop being scared of these people, they’re human beings,” he said.

“I’m not saying you should just walk up to anybody, “ he said, “But if you see these kids on a daily basis, it’s not going to hurt to say hello. It’s kinda rough, but how else are you going to engage them, and how can you expect them to listen to you?”


  1. Todd on December 9, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Thanks for the story, sorry for the humbuggery, but when you say 57th Street and International you probably mean 57th Avenue and International. Unless you’re working with some kind of Lovecraftian geometry, in which case, please post a story or two about that.

  2. At police workshop, a warning primer on gangs on October 5, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    […] (Originally appeared on […]

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