After Washington summit, law enforcement reflects on plan for peace

July 14, 2011

By Michelle Santos

Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Memphis are cities that dwarf Salinas in almost every measure – except high levels of crime and violence. When the Summit on Preventing Youth Violence took place in Washington D.C. in April, Salinas was one of six cities with officials in attendance. The summit aimed to develop a multi-faceted approach to dealing with violence in America’s most crime-ridden communities.

Community Alliance for Safety and Peace (CASP), a collaborative of more than thirty Salinas organizations, which represented Salinas at the Washington summit, is working to implement new strategies for reducing violence in the city. Through CASP, the group of representatives from the city, county, schools, and nonprofits share resources with the goals of building, supporting and sustaining peace in Salinas.

Salinas ranked fourth nationally in 2008 for homicides when compared to cities of similar size. More than 90 percent of those killings were gang-related, and according to officer Dale Fors of the Salinas Police Department. Salinas’ exclusively Latino gang population is unique. According to Fors. In most cities with gang violence issues, ethnic tensions are usually involved.

In 2010, 19 rapes, 365 robberies, 1,358 burglaries, 2,437 larcenies and 853 stolen vehicles were reported in Salinas. The actual numbers are much higher, Fors said, but many crimes go unreported due to fear of gang retaliation.

Deputy chief Kelly McMillin and deputy city attorney and community safety director Georgina Mendoza presented Salinas’ anti-violence strategy at the summit. Their strategy outlines six broad areas that need addressing: social and economic conditions; engaging and supervising youth; environmental design and urban planning; education and schools; law enforcement; and impact of drugs and alcohol.

For each identified issue, the committee has established goals and objectives. To counter the impact of drugs and alcohol, for example, the goal is to “create an environment that reduces the supply and demand of drugs and alcohol.” Objectives toward reaching that goal include decreasing the access, use and abuse of drugs and alcohol among youth and families.

The summit gave Mendoza some valuable tools, she said. The importance of incorporating faith-based organizations in efforts to reduce violent crime was one such new concept, she said. The ability of churches and other faith-based organizations to get the word out and influence the community is exceptional.

“I learned to think outside the box, things like appealing to the business community more,” said Mendoza. “When there’s a crime in the city, it affects the entire community. People aren’t going outside and playing with their kids. The bottom line is that it affects economic growth, and the city as a whole.”

Braiding a multitude of community resources together, and asking everyone from taxpayers to business owners for input, dedication and involvement, has improved the city’s efforts to reduce youth violence, Mendoza said. The community is stepping up to the challenge, she added, and starting to recognize that it’s their problem and they can do things to make it better.

“I feel like there is engagement and mobilization at the level of community,” she said. “There’s been a change in tolerance and acceptance and more of a transformational thinking.”

Criminal recidivism is perhaps the most important issue in discussions of violent crime prevention. There aren’t effective off-ramps to the criminal justice system once people have been in prison. “It’s too late for most young men who are that far down the trail,” McMillin said.

McMillin is relieved to see state and national recognition that the problem of violent crime must be addressed at its root level.

“You’ve got to get ahead of it before the violence occurs,” said McMillin, “before there’s an outbreak. You’re not going to get to prevention through law enforcement.”

Suppression used to be seen as the main approach to gang violence, but the focus has shifted to prevention. People saw police as the agency that should deal with the problems of ensuring community safety, but communities are starting to take more responsibility because of the realization that prevention is essential to the equation.

McMillin and Mendoza see investing in early prevention as a key way to making a difference. Taxpayers are footing the bill for a spectrum of costs, including everything from the cost of imprisonment to helicopter rides for victims. The more investment that can be made in advance, the lower these costs will be. It’s preventative medicine.

“We’ve got to vaccinate against violence rather than treating it in the emergency room,” said McMillin. “Salinas makes a good example in terms of early prevention. Look around the country, there are a lot more Salinases than there are Chicagos. If we can successfully push out a model for a Salinas-sized city, that can be leveraged to many places.”

While those involved in mitigating Salinas’ violence problem are hopeful, a problem that has been in existence since the 1940s can’t be tackled overnight.

“People are always looking for a quick fix to any problem. We can document street gangs for approximately 70 years in Salinas. It’s a multi-generational problem that developed over many years, so it’s going to take many years to undo,” said McMillin.

Though change will inevitably require time, Mendoza is optimistic about the future of Salinas, especially since attending the summit. “If we make these changes through time, we will see significant change, so we are very hopeful,” she said.

The next phase is implementation of the strategic two-year plan, but that will require funding—a challenge of its own. McMillin said there’s no guarantee of money, but attendance at the summit does put Salinas on the map. Joining forces with other agencies to face the problem of violence in Salinas is also a better, more strategic use of federal and state funding.

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