Police Chief Bill Scott is bringing changes to the unit tasked with investigating gang-related crimes to focus more on building trust with the community as gun violence soars in San Francisco.
The Gang Task Force has been renamed as the Community Violence Reduction Team and beefed up with 10 new officers who are not investigators but have community-policing experience working in housing projects or walking foot beats.
“This is a total restructuring,” Scott said at the Police Commission on Wednesday. “There is no more Gang Task Force.”
While the unit will still be led by the same lieutenant, Scott Biggs, and will retain at least some of its investigators, the CVRT is expected to collaborate more closely with civilian gun violence prevention workers and an investigative unit that analyzes shooting data, called the Gun Crime Intelligence Center, to better understand the “complex street conflicts” that are driving shootings in The City.
The unit will also meet weekly with other members of the San Francisco Police Department and outside agencies to analyze crime trends as part of a newly assembled Shooting Review Board.
The idea is to build on recent analysis from a nonprofit consultant that found that just 12 groups or gangs of individuals are locked in cycles of violence and responsible for a majority of San Francisco’s gun violence in recent years. The analysis referred to the groups as “high-risk social networks” rather than gangs because not all of the groups meet the statutory definition of a gang in California.
“Victims of shootings are much more likely to be shot again,” Biggs told the Police Commission. “The research shows that these victims are highly likely to retaliate within the next 120 days. Our goal primarily is to interrupt these cycles of retaliation.”
The news comes as San Francisco continues to face a sharp uptick in gun violence in neighborhoods like the Bayview. As of this week, 77 people have been shot in San Francisco so far in 2021 compared to just 30 during the same time period in 2020 and 35 in 2019, police data shows.
The changes may also speak to the broader recognition among San Francisco officials that branding individuals as gang members can come with harmful repercussions. In one of his first acts after taking office, District Attorney Chesa Boudin stopped filing gang enhancements that were disproportionately being used to increase the sentences of Black and Latino defendants.
The Gang Task Force was created in 1977 in response to a Chinatown gang shooting that killed five people and injured 11 others, known as the Golden Dragon massacre. The task force was initially focused on crimes committed by Asian gangs but later grew to investigate Latino and Black gangs in the 1980s, according to the SFPD.
Police Commissioner John Hamasaki questioned whether the latest changes amounted to anything more than a “rebranding” for a unit that has created resentment toward the SFPD from the community. Hamasaki said he was concerned the unit has historically responded to shootings by stopping and searching people, particularly young Black men in the Bayview, for example.
“I want to see it in action,” Hamasaki said of the changes. “Time will tell.”
Deputy Public Defender Danielle Harris said she has never seen a white person arrested on suspicion of a gang offense. She said GTF has stopped young men of color and put them under “around the clock surveillance.”
“I haven’t seen or heard any details or any clarity about how this program differs from what we know as the existing Gang Task Force,” Harris told the Police Commission. “I want to believe that it will [differ] but in order for folks to believe it we need to hear more details.”
But Scott defended his reenvisioning as being “more than just the name change.”
“It’s really a different way of doing business, more community centered, more collaborative,” Scott said. “We still have that work of investigations to do but we are doing it in a different way.”
Reached by the San Francisco Examiner on Thursday, police union Vice President Lt. Tracy McCray said the addition of officers from outside units is new, as is the increased community collaboration.
“It is both a rebranding and reimagined unit to bring in officers who have worked in other areas but have a strong relationship with the community,” McCray said. She called the changes a “step in the right direction.”
“I know some people may be be skeptical of the new approach but it’s a fact that gun violence is increasing and that needs to stop,” McCray said.