By Lynn Graebner
When the homicide rate in Salinas stood at four times the national average in 2009, local leaders decided enough was enough. In January of that year, Salinas joined forces with the county, law enforcement, faith-based organizations and local businesses to take aim at the gang-related violence plaguing the small city.
Three years later, the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace (CASP) was 167 members strong with a program to save lives in Salinas – and no money to implement the plan.
“If we wait around for funding, kids are going to die,” said Kelly McMillin, Deputy Chief of Police for the City of Salinas and a steering committee member of CASP. “We’ll fight it with what we have.”
Monterey County leads the state in youth homicides, according to a recent analysis by the Violence Policy Center. Last year saw a record low number of shootings in Salinas – 49 – but the average number of shootings annually from 2003-2010 is 145 a year, according to analysis by the Monterey Herald. About 150,000 people live in the small city.
To tackle the problem, the city is pooling existing resources, forming alliances with residents and forging ahead anyway, drawing on whatever local, county and federal resources they can to fund their Comprehensive Strategy for Community-wide Violence Reduction.
They are finding partners in unlikely places.
The Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, for instance, is working with the Salinas Police Department on a pro bono basis to apply counterinsurgency campaign techniques to gang violence problems in Salinas.
“One of the main theories in counterinsurgency is the government needs to meet the basic needs of the residents,” said Georgina Mendoza, the Community Safety Director for Salinas and Chair of the CASP Steering Committee.
What that looks like on the domestic level is infrastructure and community building, empowering neighbors, graffiti and weed abatement, organizing neighborhood leadership and educating people about services available at the city, county and state levels, McMillin said.
Another counterinsurgency theory is that law enforcement needs to be approachable and needs to make residents their allies, Mendoza said.
In order to build that trust, CASP is starting with one neighborhood, Hebbron Heights, which has two rival gangs, one of the highest poverty and housing density levels and lowest education and literacy levels in the city.
The police department has agreed to dedicate four officers specifically to Hebbron. That’s not an easy contribution to make after losing 40 officers in the last three years due to budget cuts. And that’s in a county with two state prisons, 71 gangs, and 5,000 gang members and their affiliates. About 3,000 of them live in Salinas, states the CASP strategy document.
A little relief came late last year when the U.S. Department of Justice, through its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, granted Salinas $2.83 million to hire eight new officers. Two of them are already on the street in Hebbron, often patrolling on foot, and it’s starting to pay off.
For instance, Salinas police recently arrested a man in his home in front of his children. The next day, CASP officers went to the home to talk to the reluctant wife. They listened to her concerns and explained why force was used in the arrest, McMillin said. Noticing empty liquor bottles in the house, they offered her counseling services for alcohol abuse and for the children. She accepted the offer, an establishment of trust that led to her telling the officers about a man who rides his bicycle around the neighborhood drunk, making her children fearful to play outside.
On their way out, the officers spotted the man.
“That probably never would have come up on our radar otherwise,” McMillin said.
Now the kids in the neighborhood recognize the CASP cops and come out to chat with them and seek them out when they have problems like bullying, Mendoza said.
“All of a sudden they become my cop, my officer,” she said
The CASP officers have an office in the Hebbron Family Center, run by Salinas Parks and Community Services. As Part of CASP’s pilot there, 14 agencies will provide services. The Salinas Public Library is setting up computers at the center and will provide programs including digital arts. Nonprofit Rancho Cielo will provide free and low-cost training in construction and the culinary arts. The Monterey County Public Health Department will make a public nurse available for 4-5 hours a week. And the Sun Street Center will offer services for drug and alcohol addiction and teaching parenting skills, Mendoza said.
To foster the flow of communication between residents CASP has also organized “charlas,” Spanish for chats. Two Friday evenings a month Hebbron neighbors meet with CASP representatives.
At first, CASP members brought the food and provided the space.
“Now the residents are saying, ‘Don’t bring your food, we have better food and we’ll decide where to meet,’” Mendoza said. They’re coming up with their own agendas, becoming more outspoken, inviting their family and friends and wanting to hear from “their” CASP officers, she said.
In the spring of 2010, CASP hosted 23 “listening sessions” where they asked about 200 Salinas residents about needs and problems in their neighborhoods.
CASP now holds quarterly meetings, called Community Dialogs for Change, updating residents and getting feedback from them. One hundred to 200 residents attend those, Mendoza said. And CASP is now organizing an all-day summit called For Our Future on Mar. 3 with speakers and workshops.
CASP members hope informing residents about available services and bringing community members together will inspire residents to take action in their neighborhoods and find their own leaders.
“It might be that very determined young single mom who just wants her kids to be safe,” Mayor Donohue said.
“The whole vision is to come together, pour resources into an area and have a passing of the baton to the community leaders. Then we’d move to another area, taking back Salinas area by area,” said Gary Vincent, Director of Alternative Programs for the Monterey County Office of Education and a member of the CASP steering committee.
One of the strategies Salinas police are employing to take back neighborhoods is Operation Ceasefire. Launched in 2010 police held call-ins where they recruited gang members to come, often as an obligation of parole. They were offered job training, employment placement services and drug and alcohol abuse counseling.
The poor economy left little funding for the program in 2011. As of Dec. 31, the Governor’s Office of Gang and Youth Violence Policy was shuttered due to budget cuts.
But McMillin said his department is gearing up for another Ceasefire call despite the cuts in funds, possibly in February.
This year with fewer employment opportunities to offer, the police plan to approach gang members from a moral perspective, McMillin said.
“Even the most hard core gang members would rather not be in that lifestyle,” he said. “They just don’t know the way out.”
For those gang members who refuse help from Ceasefire, police vow to crack down heavily on them and their gangs if they commit another crime. That can include incarceration far from home and police sweeps of their gangs.
“We work very closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Mendoza said. “They’re very supportive.”
Federal law enforcement agencies also support Monterey County. In April of 2010, 250 local, state and federal law enforcement officers cooperated in Operation Knockout, arresting 34 gang members and gang associates on suspicion of trafficking narcotics and weapons.
Although state funding for the battle against gangs is dwindling, the Federal Bureau of Investigations has committed agents to work in Monterey County, McMillin said. They are part of the new Law Enforcement Operations Center in Salinas occupied at the end of 2011. McMillin estimates it will house about 26 people and and he hopes to see it fully staffed by this spring.
Shootings in Salinas fell from 151 in 2009 to 131 in 2010 and to 49 last year. Homicides dropped from 29 in 2009 to 20 in 2010 and 12 last year.
“That leads me to believe that efforts on the whole are having an impact,” McMillin said.
To market its services to the public, a CASP subcommittee has formed a campaign called For Our Future. They are producing posters, stickers, t-shirts and a website listing services available to residents. CASP enlisted local teens to talk to businesses on Alisal and Market Streets in East Salinas about the campaign. The next day there was a poster in every window, Mendoza said.
Salinas radio station La Buena 103.5 FM, has donated 30 minutes of air time to CASP every Wednesday morning to host speakers from local community service agencies.
As a result of that relationship, Paco Jacobo, general manager of Radio Campesina ,another popular station in town, called Mendoza to offer his assistance. Mendoza told him about a group of young people who had been talking to Mayor Donohue about pursing musical careers. Jacobo offered the free use of a music studio. Those 30 teens will now get experience working with musical equipment, computers and music professionals, Mendoza said.
Faith-based organizations are also supporting and organizing local kids in educational and recreational activities.
Pastor Frank Gomez of the East Salinas Family Center, a United Methodist Church, is on the CASP executive committee and leads the Mayor’s Clergy Council, a group of about 18 interfaith leaders.
“What we’re working on now is becoming familiar with the risk factors and the protective factors that influence what kids do,” he said. “If we know what those risk factors are that should challenge the faith community to do something about it,” Gomez said.
His church is already doing something. Four days a week, about 50 second through seventh graders come to the church after school for tutoring by volunteer high school students and recreational time. It’s free, and the church partners with 11 schools that refer students to the program.
“We give up our facility four days a week, but it’s a no brainer for me,” Gomez said.
Members of the Mayor’s Clergy Council are also currently doing an inventory of available space they have so that more of these types of programs can develop.
After more than 50 years of gang development in Salinas it’s going to take some time to break that cycle. But members of CASP and others are committed to the goal of a peaceful community.
“We’ve not taken our eye off the ball, Mayor Donohue said. “Nobody’s under any illusions. There’s a shark in the water,” he said.