“Welcome to the projects,” Gary Levene said. He was in the passenger seat of a Ford Crown Victoria, the signature make of a police car, flipping through the rap sheets of young, high-level offenders as the cruiser headed into Visitacion Valley.
Levene and his partner for the night, Juvenile Probation Officer Kwanza Morton, were doing curfew checks on a recent Thursday. As their cruiser rolled into the neighborhood, boys hanging around the blocks of military barracks-style housing
along Blythdale Avenue pointed them out.
“Five-O” echoed through the Sunnydale government housing while a boy on a dirt bike pulled alongside what looked to be a retired patrol car, lifting the motorbike’s front wheel from the ground as he flipped the officers the middle finger.
“We’re kind of at the deep end of the system,” Levene said. “Kids don’t come to us for singing too loud in church. You won’t see car thieves, you won’t see drug dealers. These are all heavily involved, criminally sophisticated, gun-toting, assaulting [kids].”
Levene and Morton are members of a specialized reentry unit in the Juvenile Probation Department that deals exclusively with serious offenders who have lived in group homes or treatment centers. Aimed at keeping kids in their homes rather than serving time, the pair are in the neighborhood to check on two kids in particular.
“For years, probation was sending these kids to these really expensive placements where really great work was being done,” said Levene. “The kids were coming home without a plan and falling apart. That’s where we come in.”
Visitacion Valley — bordered on the west by Crocker Amazon Playground, where two teenage boys were shot and killed in March, and McLaren Park, where another boy was found with a gunshot wound to the head in May — ranks third in The City when it comes to youths detained by the Juvenile Probation Department on criminal charges, according to last year’s statistics. Just a week ago, on the evening of Aug. 21, three men were struck by gunfire inside a parked car near the Crocker Amazon Playground.
While their presence is often known — and scrutinized — during curfew checks by some in Visitacion Valley and in other areas of The City disproportionately affected by crime, Levene, Morton and other juvenile probation officers continue to help misguided youth while unarmed. They wear protective vests, but bank mostly on the respect, training and street smarts they’ve earned or learned for safety in places where law enforcement is often untrusted.
Juvenile Probation Officer Michael Johnson said they are so well-known in some districts that people refer to the caged car they sometimes use as the “White Ghost.”
“‘Oh, here comes the White Ghost,’” Johnson said the kids say. “They could easily say, ‘You’re not going to go in there and get him, there’s 50 of us and three of you — whatcha gonna do? You better roll up out of here before we hurt you.”
But then they realize, he said, “‘Is that Mr. Morton, is that Johnson — oh man, they’re just out here doing probation stuff,’ because we’ve done it to them.”
Sunnydale’s Most Wanted
The first kid Levene and Morton checked on before dark that recent evening was a 16-year-old with a criminal record dating back to 2009. He’s known for residential burglaries, during which he would bust through walls to rob adjacent units, Levene said.
“The Sunnydale cops know him by name and on sight,” Levene said. “He’s like Sunnydale’s most wanted, and unfortunately I don’t know how much success we’re going to have with him.”
None that night, at least. Levene and Morton made the long walk under the surveillance of neighborhood kids from their car to the front door of a housing project apartment. But after several knocks and uncomfortable peeks through the window, the mother of the juvenile answered the door and said he was not there.
Still, she let the probation officers into her home, which was covered in rubbish piled along the walls. She was elated to say her place had just been painted, apologizing for the mess. Upstairs, Levene found a “gang-related” tag burned into a piece of wood, took note of it and decided to visit the next youth.
Several blocks up the road, Levene and Morton knocked on the door of a newer residence.
That’s where Michael and his mother live.
Several minutes after knocking and waiting on a stoop that smelled of marijuana, eliciting a comment on the funny scent from Levene, Michael’s mother answered with a smile.
Michael had just gotten back from Log Cabin Ranch in La Honda, a therapeutic rehabilitation facility where kids who have committed serious offenses do a number of things from practicing carpentry and gardening to sports and knitting.
“I was supposed to be there for eight months but I ended up in there for a year and a half,” Michael said, dressed in colorful clothing with clean, bright sneakers.
He was locked up after police arrested him in connection with a cellphone robbery and assault on a Muni bus. But he’s not robbing people anymore, or at least he’s not hanging out with kids who rob people, which he said was the case in the last incident.
Now, Michael said, he’s spending his time shoe shopping for his little brother’s birthday and taking him to the movies. Michael also landed a job at a Goodwill downtown, but doesn’t plan to stay there for long.
The Juvenile Probation Department connected him with Job Corps, and having received his high school diploma at Log Cabin Ranch, he plans to get training outside San Francisco for a career away from The City’s crime.
“When I left the Ranch, I told them I will never, ever come back there,” he said.
And so Levene and Morton headed back down the stoop, got into their white cruiser and left Visitacion Valley, ready to help the next kid.
Crimejuvenilejuvenile offendersprobation officersVisitacion Valley