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DSA In the News

A night on the streets with the San Mateo County Gang Task Force

Published on 11/23/2010

The rain was coming down hard as they raced from Daly City to San Mateo and finally East Palo Alto in a single night -- looking for guns, drugs and felon gang members.

The nasty weather Friday kept at home most of the men and women sought by members of the San Mateo County Gang Task Force, but not all of them. When officers stopped at a Daly City house, they didn't find the parolee and gang member they were looking for, a resident of the house. They did, however, run into his brother, who is on probation.

As they stood in the half-rebuilt basement apartment at the home, which was crowded with five cops as well as a few mattresses and some construction tools, police called in the brother and another woman's information to a dispatcher. In the end everybody in the house checked clear, except for the woman, who had a 12-year-old minor warrant out of San Francisco.

The officers headed south to continue a monthly sweep that began after the task force's four-month summer deployment. They also let a Times reporter and photographer tag along for the night.

Detective Jamie Draper, who works with the sheriff's gang intelligence unit, heard over the radio that a parolee was holed up in a motel by the freeway in San Mateo with a gun and some drugs. Draper turned and talked as Sgt. Doug Davis, a Hillsborough officer who also works with the task force, drove their SUV to the south. He said police there had surveillance watching the guy and the woman he was staying with.

"We're out here doing proactive stuff," Draper said. "But if there's a fight or something like this, we want to know about it, too."

As they drove, Draper said he must have been to that house in Daly City a million times because the people who live there had been involved in gangs and PCP for decades. They are something of an anachronism, he said, adding the drug had been common in the 1970s but had long been out of fashion, except for a pocket of county residents.

By the time the two gang cops got to San Mateo, the briefing room was set up and five uniformed officers were waiting for the bosses to arrive. A photocopied stack of maps sat on a table. An officer walked into the room, leaned a stubby assault rifle next to a cabinet, and walked out. Everything was fairly quiet.

Then it came out over the radio that the parolee was on the move. The dispatcher called out his movements -- 10 mph, headed toward the freeway. Draper and Davis hopped back into the SUV and headed out. Updates continued to come in. The man was reaching for something in his lap, possibly the weapon, maybe the drugs.

As soon as he hit the freeway, the man sped off. Police, who know most everything about the parolee, called off the pursuit. The rain was still coming down, the guy was on parole for drugs -- not rape or murder -- and the road was crowded with cars even though it was after 8 p.m.

"Nobody enjoys calling it off," Draper said, but added that, given the weather, it was probably also a relief for the cops involved.

Back in the parolee's hotel room there was a plastic bag full of hundreds of small sacks used to package drugs and two clear plastic containers lined with the residue of white powder. No drugs. Investigators figured that once police lights appeared behind the parolee, he must have tipped off the woman. She likely escaped with the dope.

After slowly rolling through the streets searching for her, Davis pointed the SUV south, toward East Palo Alto, where a handful of other units from the task force were already patrolling the streets. It didn't take long before Draper and Davis stopped a first and then a second car that had grabbed their suspicion.

What trips that sensor could be something as simple as the model of car. In fact Draper's unmarked police vehicle -- which he asked not be identified because it's used for surveillance -- had gotten him stopped by police at least seven times in the last five years.

But one of the last stops of the night, a car full of people listening to loud music, almost turned into a chase. Davis pulled the unmarked SUV behind the green Honda and the driver started going faster. The man rolled through a few stop signs and zipped away down narrow, wet streets. But when Draper threw on the lights, the car stopped instantly.

A search of the Honda turned up some bottles of booze. Everybody was underage and the driver had a suspended license, but no one was arrested.

It's not as simple as just enforcing the rules, the cops said.

In this case the car's owner, who swayed and slurred as he told police about just getting out of jail, had turned over the keys to a friend with a suspended license. Yes, the driver broke the law, but would citing him make him think twice in the future about driving home a drunk friend?

"At the point you feel like you are punishing somebody for making a good effort," Draper said on Monday, "you have to give a little bit."