Waiting for the Man
Monterey County’s Gang Task Force fights crime and waits for promised federal funds.
Thursday, June 16, 2005
It’s a late Sunday afternoon when Monterey County Gang Task Force Sgt. Rich Rodriguez pulls his department-issued, unmarked SUV into the mayor’s parking spot at the Seaside Police Department. His passenger, Task Force Lt. Dino Bardoni, jumps out to talk to Seaside officers inside. Rodriguez picks up his cell phone for the umpteenth time in an hour and dials out. He leaves yet another message, then stares out the window, waiting.
By the time Bardoni climbs back into the car, Rodriguez still hasn’t gotten his callbacks.
“You find ‘em?” Bardoni asks.
“No. I left messages,” Rodriguez replies, still staring out the window.
Rodriguez is waiting to hear from fellow Gang Task Force members. He wants them to meet him at Seaside PD to work out the night’s plan, and then converge on Seaside for the rest of their 10-hour shift. That’s how the task force works: They respond together, sometimes all 13 of them in six or seven cars. It’s an in-your-face show of force impossible to ignore.
Finally Rodriguez’ cell phone rings, and the task force cars begin to roll into the lot one by one.
Something as simple as communication between team members has been a headache for Rodriguez and Bardoni. That’s just the way it is until promised federal money—nearly $5 million—to fund the countywide joint task force arrives. Nearly three months into the program, no one has seen a penny of it.
• • • •
One of the first things Bardoni hopes the money will pay for is streamlined communications.
The Salinas Police Department formally employs Bardoni. The Monterey County Sheriff’s Department employs Rodriguez. The task force includes men from each of the two departments plus the Monterey County Adult Probation Department. Some drive police cars; others drive sheriff cars. Since each department works on a different radio frequency, their radios don’t yet communicate well with one another. So they resort to alternatives: handheld radios and cell phones.
Communication between members is a main source of frustration.
“How do you like the radio system?” Bardoni asks with a sprinkle of cynicism in his voice. “It’s not an ideal situation.”
It’s been over a year since Monterey County Sheriff Mike Kanalakis and Salinas Police Department Chief Dan Ortega went looking outside of their own departments for money.
“We had just experienced a wave of shootings in January of 2004, and I knew we needed to move, and quickly, to get a fast-growing gang problem under control,” Kanalakis remembers.
Within weeks, Ortega and Kanalakis had collaborated on a plan for the structuring of a joint gang task force. It would include representatives from both offices as well as the probation department and representatives from the district attorney’s office.
That’s when Kanalakis approached California Senator Barbara Boxer for help.
“She came here, and we discussed our concerns, and she went directly to bat for us,” Kanalakis says.
By Thanksgiving of last year, Boxer had gained support for and secured $3.1 million for the task force in federal dollars as part of a $388 billion spending package. Another $375,000 was earmarked for the Salinas Police Department, which the department later elected to pour into the task force.
An additional $1.3 million was secured by US Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel) to fund a probation department program that will be directly involved in the task force.
It’s a lot of money. But for now, it’s only numbers on paper. While they’ve yet to receive the funding, they’ve still got a job to do.
“We just couldn’t wait anymore,” Kanalakis says. “We were looking directly into the face of a big [gang] problem, and we just couldn’t sit around waiting for the check to arrive.”<>So money or no money, on March 29, the Monterey County Joint Gang Task Force became a reality.
• • • •
While politicians await the podium-speech-worthy arrival of millions, accountants in each department are likely biting their nails, and looking for cash.
“Each department is funding its own officers for now,” Kanalakis says.
Kanalakis says his department is tapping into whatever’s available, including unfilled positions and overtime. “The overtime budget is severely impacted by this, and it’s unfortunate, but money’s tight. We’re hurting. When we stepped up to the plate, it dug into our resources, but we’re making it work. We had to.”
The countywide force spreads its time equally among all cities and communities that welcome their presence.
“We try to spend every day in a different place,” Bardoni says.
To date, that has meant Salinas, Seaside, Monterey, Marina, Greenfield, Soledad and King City and other unincorporated parts of the county.
Seaside Police Chief Anthony Sollecito, who’s also the president of the Monterey County Chief Law Enforcement Officers Association and is on the task force steering committee, welcomes the unit to his city. He says he’s hopeful that someday when money does come, Seaside can assign an officer to the task force.
“We’re all strapped,” Sollecito says. “We all have very tight budgets. But ideally, yes, I’d love to have funding to pay for a Seaside officer to be part of that.”
• • • •
“I think you just passed Elm,” Bardoni says to Rodriguez. It’s the street they’ve been looking for. Rodriguez turns back to Elm and pulls the SUV behind a Salinas Police Department car.
On a dark corner in Seaside, a police officer, a sheriff’s deputy and a probation officer are working together, questioning three adult males, searching their car for dope they’ve been told is inside. It’s a progressive collaboration, and a success even in its infancy.
To date, the task force has made over 350 stops, nearly 200 pedestrian contacts, arrested more than 100 people, interviewed nearly 400 people in the field, and seized handguns whose ballistics tests have identified them in two different murders within the county.
Gang members are catching on, too, Bardoni says.
“They’ve noticed we’re out there making an impact. They’ve responded in interesting ways,” he says with a half smirk. Rodriguez produces a black-and-white picture of a wall scrawled with graffiti. “187 on all cops,” it says, referring to the Penal Code Section for murder. “Yep, they’ve noticed.”
Sollecito is a believer, money or no money: “If you have a plan and people in place and a situation that needs immediate attention, you can’t let an entire community be held captive just based on the dollars. You take the federal government at their word that the money will come, even if that means eventually.”
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