Murder Rate Doesn’t Shock Or Awe
Salinas saw 14 murders in 2007, double the number from 2006.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Only twice since 1979 has Salinas’ annual body count ever dipped below 2005 and 2006 numbers: Salinas recorded two murders for 1983, and four murders for 1988. More recent history is replete with far more disturbing numbers. There were 18 murders in 1997; 17 murders in 1998; 13 murders in 1999; 18 murders in 2000; 15 murders in 2001; 20 murders in 2002; 19 murders in 2003; and 17 murders in 2004.
Brian Contreras is the executive director for Second Chance Youth, a nonprofit gang violence prevention and intervention program in Salinas. “If you ask me, those two low years were the anomaly,” Contreras says of 2005 and 2006. “14 murders for 2007 didn’t surprise me one bit,” he says.
The number doesn’t shock Salinas Police Chief Dan Ortega either. “Surprised? Not at all,” he says. “When we had those two years of only seven homicides, I was very careful not to take credit personally, or for the PD to take credit because once we start doing that, we have to assume the blame when it goes back up.”
A big piece of the credit for those down years, though, may rightfully belong to SPD. Coincidentally or not, the lower murder rates occurred at the same time the words “Joint Gang Task Force” became part of most every local politician’s vocabulary. With federal funding secured, the support of the community, and a whole lot of media attention, the Salinas Police Department, Monterey County Sheriff’s Department and Adult Probation hit the street in one collaborative unit.
“We knew it was doing something good out there for sure,” Ortega says. “In those initial months, we were hearing, ‘God, we can’t even move without the GTF being out there.’ ”
“It’s the partnership; that’s what works,” Contreras says. “Particularly with [Adult] Probation. Because if you’re a kid on probation, you have no rights. So when [Adult] Probation is with cops? There we go. The police officers are the referees of the streets. But the probation officers, they’re the coaches. They can pull you out any time they want to, and the kids know it.”
GTF aside, Ortega and Contreras both agree that there are a plethora of contributing factors as to why 2005 and 2006 numbers plummeted, making 2007 appear to skyrocket: prison releases; local, state and federal sting operations that take down gang members and topple a gang’s infrastructure; the struggle for power at the other end of those stings; and the economy.
“Look at the price of gas,” Contreras says. “Who can afford to go do drive-bys with those prices?” He isn’t kidding. Contreras says it’s as raw and rudimentary as that.
It doesn’t help, either, that today there are roughly 3,000 gang members in Salinas alone, as many as three times the number Contreras estimated in 1999.
Still, Ortega says the gang influence of today pales in comparison to what it was when he took his post in July of 1999.
Most experts agree that the key to gang violence is three-pronged: suppression, intervention and prevention. “We’ve got the suppression part down,” Contreras says. “But there’s no money for the intervention and prevention parts. None. So those numbers of 14 and 15, they’re not gonna change. But do I want it to stay that way? Hell no. I liked it better when it was seven.”