Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Zebra Killers

The Hunt

Hundreds of cops fanned out across the city to stop, search, and question young black men who looked remotely similar to the sketch. They called it Operation Zebra.

Police with sketch cruise streets
Police with sketch cruise streets

            One of the first men stopped was Robert Brooks, a 23-year-old private security guard. He was wearing a long black coat with a fur collar, platform shoes and an orange-and-brown knit stocking cap when an unmarked patrol car rolled up beside him as he waited for a bus in the Mission District.

            "They put me in the car and asked me questions about the killings," Brooks told the Chronicle. "They wanted to know if I had any firsthand information."

            Brooks told the cops that the only thing he knew about the Zebra Killers was what he'd watched on television and read in the paper.

            The first thing he did after the cops released him was to throw away his stocking cap to avoid future interrogations, he told the paper.

            "I think the mayor is persecuting the black community for the acts of a few crazy dudes," Brooks told the Chronicle. "If the killings continue, some other people are talking about retaliation against blacks. That will be too bad. The thing is bad enough now."

            The Bay Area Association of Black Psychologists and Black Psychiatrists of Northern California also criticized the profiling, saying it raised the potential for violent confrontation between black and white residents.

            When the police chief tried to assuage the association's fears by promising to hire 28 black officers to work the Zebra case, Aubrey Dent, a psychiatrist at Mt. Zion Hospital, scoffed.

            "We don't need to be harassed by police of any color," he told the Chronicle.

            More than 500 black men were stopped and searched before Operation Zebra was suspended.

            U.S. District Judge Alfonso J. Zirpoli, acting on a suit sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union, ruled that the widespread profiling of African Americans was unconstitutional.

            The ruling was a blow to the SFPD, which once again felt helpless to protect the city against the mysterious killers.

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