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Citizen Police Academy Sheds Light on Gangs, Drugs and Vice in San Rafael

Police officers educate the public on local crime as part of the spring Citizen Police Academy.

Whether its for speeding on the freeway or being disorderly in public, many of us don’t encounter cops in favorable circumstances.

A part from shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Cops, many of us don’t know how our local police stations operate, from how they collect evidence to how they analyze a crime scene. But the Citizen Police Academy wants to change that. 

The academy, which offers 10 sessions on everything from traffic enforcement to patrol car ride-alongs, introduces the public to members of the San Rafael Police Department and sheds light on what they deal with when doing their jobs.

Last week, four members of the street crimes unit discussed gangs, drugs and vice in San Rafael.

Gangs

In 2008, a Marin County grand jury reported that San Rafael, Novato and Marin City all had street gangs with ties to organized crime. According to the San Rafael detectives, these street gangs are still alive and very active in the area.

San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood is home to many gang members from the 18th Street and the 13th Street gangs, known as the Sureños meaning “southerners.” These gang members usually wear blue and have connections with the Mexican Mafia, a powerful prison gang from San Quentin, also known as “La Eme.” 

On April 14, detectives arrested a member of the Sureños gang after a security guard at the Mi Pueblo Supermarket was assaulted with a gun, according to Lt. Dan Fink.

The security guard at Mi Pueblo, located at 330 Bellam Blvd., told the officers that a man pulled a semi-automatic handgun on him after he caught the man and his two companions trying to take soda without paying for it. The man told the security guard that he was going to “put a bullet in him,” Fink said.

After reviewing surveillance video from the incident, detectives identified Walfre Jose Rios, 18, as the man who pulled the gun. Based on past contacts, the detectives knew Rios to be involved with the Sureños.

Although there have been incidents in the past where passers-by are injured because of a gang conflict, most violence is targeted toward other gangs over territory, the detectives said.

The Sureños’ rival gang is the Norteños, or “northerners,” who traditionally wear red and have members in Terra Linda and Novato. Gangs use graffiti and tattoos to show their affiliations and to scare those who don’t show respect.

“Respect is very important to a gang,” Detective Christian Diaz said. Many gang members come out of prison and recruit children as young as 13. Usually, the newcomers are from families where they don’t have much respect at home and the gang provides the support and status they seek, he explained.

Diaz scrolled through recent photos of gang graffiti sprayed on fences and garages throughout the Canal neighborhood.

“You can find graffiti like this every day on Canal street,” he said.

Canal Street, Larkspur Street and Novato Street are where most gang activity occurs, according to Diaz. Since this area is close to the Richmond Bridge, it allows for easy transport of drugs or weapons in and out of the area, and the Sureños are known to have connections with gangs in Richmond, he said.

Vice

Women can be huge players in gangs, and are seen as property among members, Sgt. Raul Aguilar told the academy. Many of the prostitutes officers arrest have gang symbols, like the number 13, tattooed on their bodies.

Although local street gangs are involved in prostitution and drug dealing, not all vice and drug activity is gang-related. Many pimps and prostitutes use Internet escort services, like MyRedBook.com, to arrange meetings with “Johns.”

San Rafael is part of a loop from Sacramento to San Francisco and down to Los Angeles, where prostitutes travel from city to city and make connections through the Internet and text messages with “Johns,” said Detective Chris Duncan.

On March 23, detectives organized a prostitution sting that resulted in two arrests. They contacted the 16-year-old juvenile through text messages after finding her on an adult services website, and arranging to meet her at Motel 6 on 737 Francisco Blvd. East.

They arrested the girl, and Andre Christopher Conway, 21, who paid for the motel room and drove her from Rancho Cordova, Calif. to San Rafael, according to police spokeswoman Margo Rohrbacher.

Female officers occasionally participate in sting operations to arrest “Johns,” but in the past pimps have attempted to assault or kidnap the undercover officers, Aguilar said.

In San Rafael, prostitutes tend to contact “Johns” on Canal Street, East Francisco Boulevard and Bellam Boulevard, according to Duncan. Many of the girls are from the East Bay and some are as young as 13.

“We try to go after their pimps, but many of them are too scared,” Duncan said. “These girls on the street are the most vulnerable. They’re scared and they can’t get away.”

Drugs

“You can find drugs in every neighborhood in San Rafael and Marin County,” said Aguilar.

Oxycontin and oxycodone are big problems because of the accessibility of the substances in medications, according to Detective George Schikore. “Teenagers are going into there parents’ medicine cabinet and taking things without know what it does to you,” he said.

Cocaine, methamphetamine, heroine, ecstasy, marijuana and mushrooms are all
found in San Rafael as well.

Citizen Police Academy

The Citizen Police Academy is offered in the spring and fall. Students in the academy get to ride along with police officers, learn how to fire a weapon and listen to talks about hostage negotiations, crime scene investigation, police sketch art and more.

“We use these sessions as outreach for the community, so they can get to know us and what we do,” Fink said. “Whenever we have one of these [academies] they always fill up right away.”

Not too long ago, the San Rafael Police Department stopped the academy due to budget cuts. But  they were able to bring the program back after receiving grant money.

“Police often get a bad rap,” said San Rafael resident Diane Fischler, who attended all the sessions. “I watch a lot of cop shows, but they aren’t like that at all really. They don’t swagger or anything.”

Her favorite part of the academy was riding a patrol boat up the Canal waterfront. She also enjoyed learning how to fire a gun, she said.

Fischler, who’s lived in the area for 16 years and frequents community events like this one, said she learned a lot about what officers face on the job. “I didn’t know that cops work 12-hour shifts, or that domestic violence calls are considered the most dangerous,” she said. “I could just see the dedication they all have to their jobs.”

Graduation will be held April 20 in the City Council Chambers at 6 p.m. Visit the San Rafael Police Department website for details about the academy and an application to participate.

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