Mostly middle-aged and older residents eager for answers from police about this weekend’s three homicides packed into the community center Tuesday night on 24th Street and Treat Avenue.

While many applauded the unmistakable increase in police patrolling along 24th Street,  some worried that panic about gang violence could result in unfair targeting of Latino youth and immigrants — and risk escalating gang tensions.

Captain Stephen Tacchini addresses the crowd at Mission Education Projects Inc. on Tuesday.

Captain Stephen Tacchini addresses the crowd at Mission Education Projects Inc. on Tuesday. (Lily Mihalik)

“It’s a delicate balance how you police,” said Captain Stephen Tacchini. “I don’t want to make it look like anything that moves will be detained,” but “if anyone is engaged in illegal activity, we are stopping them.”

The department will maintain its full-court press policing for at least the next few days, Tacchini said. Though two suspects are in custody for the Sunday shootings at Papa Potrero’s Pizza that left two dead and one injured, no one has been identified for the murder on Friday.

Police believe the three murders are gang-related.

Some residents attending the meeting said police and media spoke too soon when alleging that the shootings were gang-related.

“Just because they’re Latino and wearing red doesn’t mean they’re gang-related,” said one resident, whose eyes welled with tears as he spoke. “This really bothers me.”

He said that patrons of Papa Potrero’s Pizza, where Sunday’s shooting took place, were wearing red because the San Francisco 49ers were playing a football game that many were watching on television.

“We’re not taking anyone in because they’re 49ers’ fans and especially not just because they’re Latinos,” responded Lieutenant James Spillane of the homicide unit.

Residents listen.

Residents listen. (Lily Mihalik)

Confusion among residents about the extent to which the murders were gang-related intensified as police failed to clearly explain how police identify gang members.

Lt. Spillane told Mission Loc@l that gang affiliation is ascertained in a number of ways including direct disclosure, previous court cases and officer intelligence.

“If it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, and has feathers like a duck, it’s probably a duck,” he said.

The dramatic increase in traffic stops since the murder on Friday was another concern for some residents who worried about racial profiling. Other residents, however, scoffed at such a concern and said safety came first.

Tacchini was frank: Officers are targeting people on parole and probation. The reason is that these suspects can be searched without a warrant and arrested if police find drugs or weapons. The shakedowns are intended to have a chilling effect on criminal activity by making drugs and guns riskier to carry.

It was sidewalk room only.

It was sidewalk room only. (Lily Mihalik)

What everyone seemed to agree on was that law enforcement alone cannot address issues of youth violence. Residents underscored the importance of  prevention — offering youth alternatives to hanging out on the sidewalk — as well as developing better relationships among neighbors.

Prevention work has been made much more difficult by city budget cuts, said Alfredo Pedroza, the mayor’s liaison to Districts 9, 11 and the Latino community. The city budget has been slashed by a half-billion dollars, he said.

But block-level organizing is free.

“When people feel threatened, they take action,” said David Delp, a member of  Treat One Thousand, a neighborhood watch organization on the 1,000 block of Treat Avenue. The group started after the string of murders in August 2008.

Delp said their block has transformed dramatically since they first circulated a contact list for everyone on the block. Many share keys, or hold joint garage sales and get together socially four to five times a year.

“It makes a huge difference to be able to walk down the street and know your neighbors,” he said.

A resident addresses Captain Tacchini.

A resident addresses Capt. Tacchini.

In 2007, their block had no trick or treaters on Halloween. Last year, they had approximately 350.

After the murders on Treat Avenue last year, Delp said he and his neighbors made a point of sitting out on the corner to drink coffee and hang out. Their presence helped make the block less scary and encouraged others to visit local businesses. The latter suffer greatly in the wake of a violent crime, he said.

Delp encouraged residents to order pizza at Papa Potrero’s this week.

“When people get scared, the gangs win,” he said.