The Loading Zone
With Measure K, Salinas hopes to pull the trigger against gang violence.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Think of Salinas’ gang crisis as a loaded 9-millimeter handgun. A week rarely goes by without a young gang member squeezing the trigger, taking aim at another kid. In the heat of the moment, cops can’t stop bullets from flying. Local youth and the city’s future are in the crosshairs.
The body count has grown large enough – 24 homicides so far this year – and the gunshots have grown loud enough that the U.S. Attorney, Governor’s Office, and Rep. Sam Farr are paying attention and promising help. While state and federal troops are joining Salinas’ fight, a crucial test will come on Election Day, Nov. 3.
The city, led by Mayor Dennis Donohue, is asking residents to throw them a lifeline to fight crime: Measure K, a 1-percent sales tax hike. The outcome of the measure, backers say, will determine whether Salinas stays in the sights of the loaded 9 or begins a new route to peace.
“If Measure K doesn’t pass, all future outcomes are random and uncertain,” Donohue says.
RED VS. BLUE | 13 plus 14 equals deadly math in Salinas.
Norteños -- Northern California-based gang affiliated with Nuestra Familia (NF) prison gang. Members are typically second- or third-generation Mexican Americans. Salinas is still a largely Norteño town, though the rival Sureños have grown in numbers.
Symbols: Norte, 14, X4, XIV, four dots, UFW eagle with four feathers, five-pointed north star
Territory: Historically, Norteños were affiliated with streets such as East Market and Acosta Plaza, but gang experts say gang members are more mobile and live throughout the city.
Sureños -- Southern California-based gang with ties to Mexican Mafia (La Eme) prison gang. Members are often recent immigrants and children of farmworkers. Though Sureños are still outnumbered by rival Norteños, southern gang members have gained power in recent years.
Symbols: Sur, 13, X3, XIII, three dots
Territory: Sureños have long been linked to streets such as La Posada and Hebbron, but gang experts say gang members, as with Norteños, are more intermeshed throughout the city now.
City officials want to use the $18 million a year generated from Measure K to fund Police Chief Louis Fetherolf’s wish list for 84 more cops. Fetherolf envisions a new direction of community-oriented policing, but warns that there aren’t enough men and women in blue now to even maintain beats. But banking on more police to sell a tax hike in the midst of an economic slump has been met with mixed reviews, given the Salinas P.D.’s rocky record, and doubts whether more cops are the answer.
The fate of K – much like the at-odds relationship between cop and resident – comes down to trust. Will the City Council spend the money as planned? Will Fetherolf deliver on neighborhood-center policing? And in the end, will any of this cool the city’s gang inferno?
Although campaign mailers suggest K will stop gang violence, Fetherolf is careful to lower the expectation bar, even with a beefed-up department. “This is a social phenomenon that has grown over decades and it’s not going to change if this measure passes,” he says. “This is the beginning point.”
A beginning. A foundation. A plan. These are goals Salinas has long been seeking, but the city has been slow to stimulate community engagement to gain ground on the city’s entrenched gangs. The Community Alliance for Safety and Peace, the broad-based group charting a course to peace, is still trying to move beyond think-tank status. “So far, we have not had that balance between the policymakers and the community voice,” says Linda McGlone, chairwoman of CASP’s community mobilization committee.
In coming months, San Jose consultants will help CASP leaders write a strategic peace plan.
And Salinas will launch Ceasefire, a well-regarded national program which police hope will dramatically reduce homicides by targeting a small group of the city’s most violent criminals and offering them alternatives in exchange for putting down their guns.
While some neighbors are getting involved, most residents aren’t stepping up. Fear and mistrust remain. And everyone agrees that CASP members can dream up whatever plan they want, officers can flood the streets, but until they win over the hearts and minds of regular folks, nothing will change – the underlying causes of poverty, broken families and third generation gang families will arm the next round of thugs.
‘The house is on fire’
While Salinas businessman John McPherson isn’t thrilled about paying higher taxes with Measure K, he says it’s the best option to deal with the city’s gang crisis. “The house is on fire,” McPherson says. “Right now we’ve got to put the fire out. At this point, the tax increase is the lesser of two evils.”
A cycle of retaliatory shootings between Norteño and Sureño gangs (see box, pg. 18) has amounted to 47 homicides since January 2008 and more than 180 attempted homicides since May 2007. The most recent victims were four teenage boys shot inside a car by a gunman riding in the same vehicle near Hartnell College. Fourteen-year-old Ociel Montiel and 15-year-old Rodolfo Cristobal died.
Salinas is one slaying away from tying last year’s homicide record. Its per-capita murder rate last year was one of the highest in the state. (See graph, pg. 20)
In response to rising gang crime and shrinking revenues, the City Council in July declared an emergency and placed the tax measure on the ballot. The city cut $13.2 million from its budget this fiscal year and is prepared to cut another $7.2 million, including closing five recreation centers and eliminating seven civilian police officers and 11 firefighters, if K doesn’t pass.
The last time Salinas turned to residents to fill a budget hole was in 2005, when voters passed Measure V, a half-percent sales tax hike, which completely funds the city’s three libraries. Community groups asked the council to put V on the ballot, but given the worsening economy, there hasn’t been the same political backing for K.
Fundraising initally came up short, and formal support has been lukewarm beyond the resolute backing of local growers: The Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce isn’t behind the measure because of the lack of a sunset clause; Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action, a church-based coalition that galvanized votes for V, is staying out of this election; and the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council is endorsing K with a heavy heart.
Leading the official opposition is “No on K” Committee Chairman and anti-tax advocate Brett Landon. He says general fund revenue has risen since the passage of V, yet service levels are lower than they were seven years ago. “We have less services, a whole lot more administration and wasteful expenses,” Landon says, adding that money from Measure K will be funneled into bloated city salaries. “Their promises are empty.”
The measure, which would include an oversight committee appointed by City Council members, would raise the cash-poor city’s tax rate to 9.75 percent, the highest in the county. Landon says the tax hike, amid a recession, will encourage people to shop in other cities. But Donohue says local shoppers are already avoiding Salinas because of the crime. “People have been voting with their feet for a long time,” he says, adding that the city is undercapitalized with only $563 to spend per resident, compared to Monterey with more than $1,800 in revenue per capita.
Chief has new gang plan
The council approved a vague spending plan for K: 85 percent for public safety, prevention and intervention to hire more police officers and fund firefighters, paramedics, after-school programs and recreation centers, sending the measure to voters at the same time Fetherolf presented his 90-day report. The bottom line: His department is too shorthanded to turn the tide.
With 168 sworn officers, Salinas has 1.12 officers per 1,000 residents, second lowest in the county. Officers are caught in a reactive cycle of responding to emergencies and don’t have time to make neighborhood connections that build trust, Fetherolf says. “So much of the community views us as an occupying force rather than an integrated fabric,” he adds. “The only way for us to get on topof [crime] is a community policing model. We just don’t have the capacity.”
The department has also been pushing its anonymous tip lines, but it’s unclear how effective the tips are and whether more people are calling. Statistics for SPD’s tip lines for drugs and gangs are not tracked, according to Sgt. Ono Solis, who adds: “The gang/guns line has not received tips that led to arrests or solid leads in a criminal case.”
The department’s We-Tip line has received 44 calls since its inception in April. According to Fetherolf’s report, two calls provided “murder or attempted murder information,” which “led to the arrest of a homicide suspect.”
Fetherolf says the department is woefully lacking in intelligence capacity, with only one part-time crime analyst and stacks of files that haven’t even been entered into a computer. In all, Fetherolf has requested 131 new personnel, including 73 officers and 14 supervisors.
The original spending mix for K included 10 percent going to a new $45 million police station and a cash reserve. But an agenda item on the new cop shop was rescheduled until after the election to make it more palatable, and now Donohue says the city may be able to find federal funds to build the station.
Even at current staffing levels, Fetherolf says the department needs to work smarter and more efficiently. In his recent 180-day report, he highlighted administrative reshuffling, the need for a study on officer deployment, installation of surveillance cameras and a new program to teach officers conversational Spanish. Less than a quarter of Salinas cops speak the city’s main language, according to the report.
The department is not working alone. An FBI agent is now part of the county’s Gang Task Force, and Northern California U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello has assigned a deputy to review Salinas cases for federal prosecution.
On Sept. 24, Russoniello convened a Salinas gang summit of federal and state bigwigs, including state gang czar Paul Seave. “The reason we are bringing all these agencies down here is so they make the commitment,” Russoniello said before the meeting.
Farr will also help the city fund a wishlist of social programs, as part of county and city framework for getting at the root of youth violence. But Russoniello isn’t promising a federal magic bullet – in a meeting with CASP members, he said whatever help the feds provide is just seed money and that all efforts will go for naught if the community isn’t a part of the solution.
Bridging the community gap
At 5:20am, farmworkers wearing hooded sweatshirts and carrying backpacks saunter through the pre-dawn darkness in east Salinas on their way to work. A van sells hot food to a labor crew that hops aboard a white bus parked across from the Foods Co. supermarket on East Alisal Street. Once the bus is full the driver pulls away to the fields, dragging three portable toilets behind it.
In a city where agriculture is the lifeblood, the farmworkers and their kids make up many of the families gang prevention groups want to reach, whether by educating parents, keeping kids in school, or generating crime tips. Yet there’s a clear disconnect between residents and policy makers.
An hour and a half later, department heads in suits sip coffee and eat bagels around an elementary school board room. At the table are top city and county law enforcement brass, community organizations and faith representatives. But residents and grassroots leaders are noticeably absent.
Judge Jonathan Price hands out remittance cards to receive donations, but CASP members find spelling errors and decide it’s too early to start collecting money. Despite temporary gains – boosting summer reading programs, providing job training to 565 youths, distributing tip line numbers and coordinating a sports festival – the organization is still trying to figure out its next move.
CASP is beginning to create a strategic plan and recently received a small grant to work with two San Jose city officials. A key part of the process is finding out what the community wants.
“We all agree the people in the community most affected by the violence should have a voice,” says Deputy Chief Kelly McMillin, the city’s community safety director.
The community mobilization subcommittee has been reaching out to organizations and neighborhood groups and reporting back, McGlone says. “My report is no replacement to understanding the community voice,” she says.McMillin adds that CASP has tried to reach out, but “we are lacking grass-roots community structure in this town.”
Still, Salinas’ commitment to finding a solution and the dedication of its leaders is impressive, says John Calhoun, director of the California Cities Gang Prevention Network, made up of 13 cities, including Salinas. “Other cities should be jealous.Not every city has the players, or they just haven’t pulled them all in,” he says. “It’s like players that are chomping at the bit, ready to go, and need a playbook.”
Other cities in the network, like San Jose, Oxnard and San Bernadino, have seen drops in crime while Salinas’ murder rate surges. That’s because Salinas hasn’t had a community-wide response to the violence, Calhoun says. “It’s been a piece here and a piece there. They are nice pieces but they are not fitting.”
Residents, for the most part, remain on the sidelines. “Unless the neighborhoods are involved it’s just like pouring stuff into a colander,” Calhoun says.
Alisal family on patrol
The Lopez family is the exception to community apathy and fear. Sitting in her family’s home on Burke Street behind Alisal High School, Cristela Lopez recalls hearing two gunshots on the morning of Jan. 12. Lopez adds that she hears shots so regularly that at first she didn’t think anything of it, but when she decided to investigate, she found 15-year-old Juan Jose Perez laying on the ground, bleeding from bullet wounds to the stomach.
Lopez lives near a back gate that provides a shortcut for Alisal students. The after-school rendezvous often sees fights and vandalism. Perez was on his way to school when he was shot. He died. Faded flowers and a cross bearing his name still sit against the school fence.
After the shooting, Cristela’s brother, Santiago, called the police department and high school to try to get more security. “I wanted somebody to be here when they go to school and when they get out,” he says.
Cristela got in touch with Councilman Tony Barrera, who initially came out every morning to do parent patrols. Victory Outreach volunteers started talking to kids after school as well. Community group Neighbors United held a block party on Burke Street. “We were able to meet the neighbors and other people were able to come from different streets,” Cristela says.
Cristela helped organize a neighborhood watch meeting which Fetherolf attended. Before the outcry from the Burke Street shooting, Santiago says police “didn’t know this street existed.”
High school students still use the shortcut, along with students from two nearby elementary schools, but now there are plans to install surveillance cameras with money donated by Alco Water, and to landscape the city property outside the school fence. Cristela is one of three block captains who keep an eye on the streets and report abandoned vehicles. “I don’t think [the shooting] would have happened if the community had been involved,” Cristela says.
Although the Lopez family has an improved relationship with public officials and police, the household is not sold on Measure K. Santiago says the city should build a new recreation center in east Salinas, not hire more cops. Cristela complains that unless there’s a shooting, police “always come late.” When it’s suggested that a larger police department would likely mean faster response time, the Lopezes aren’t convinced.
Is San Jose the model?
Salinas will be looking north to San Jose for advice to break the barrier between government and residents.
San Jose has been strategically attacking its gang problem since 1991. With a population more than six times the size of Salinas, San Jose had only six more murders than Salinas last year.
Mario Maciel, superintendent of the mayor’s gang prevention task force, says building trust starts with mobilizing a swath of city outreach workers after a homicide. “If we don’t immediately engage a community in crisis, a molehill turns into a mountain,” Maciel says. Salinas now has a similar community response team in place.
Another key tactic is townhall meetings. “We really wanted a community response to a community problem,” Maciel says. “We respond to gang violence. Communities live with it.”
Salinas is heading down this route, but it will be months before the city has a peace plan, and likely years before the strategy starts eroding gangs’ influence.
Within the next few months, however, Salinas will initiate a proven tactic in stopping shootings: Ceasefire. Here’s how it works: Law enforcement calls in about a dozen criminals most likely to commit shootings. The gang members are offered job training and counseling. If they don’t take the carrot, police and prosecutors threaten to track them day and night and lock them up as long as possible.
Cities like Boston and Stockton that implemented the program saw 60 to 80 percent drops in youth homicides. McMillin hopes to see a 50 percent reduction in Salinas homicides within two years. If shootings subside, McMillin says, long-term gang prevention and intervention efforts are more likely to take hold. “When you have fearful neighbors and residents, it’s hard for the prevention efforts to really encompass all the people that need them.”
Donohue wants ‘complete win’
Using military strategy language gleaned from a partnership with Naval Postgraduate School, Donohue says a drop in homicides is still a “weak win,” and Salinas needs to strive for a “complete win,” a long-term peace where residents and government prevent the conditions that feed gang violence.
“Salinas has had weak wins,” Donohue says, citing the 10-block policing program in East Salinas during the ’90s. “Instead of a partial victory, let’s get a complete win.”
He says Measure K is a key for the long haul. “It’s a penny for peace with a plan and purpose: sufficient [police] capacity, new vision, critical prevention and intervention programs. When that comes together, then we reverse the cycle of deterioration.”
Brian Contreras, who has led gang intervention program 2nd Chance for 20 years, says Salinas finally has the right convergence of leadership and tactics on gang violence: “We have the right chief. We have the right leadership. We are at the right point with CASP, Ceasefire and everything else to start making some changes here, but we are missing one moon. That one moon is the economy.”
If K passes Tuesday, the gangs will still carry loaded guns, and there will likely be more teen funerals. Over time, however, officials say a bolstered department, along with strengthened recreation and job programs, will gain public trust and dampen gunfire. Or the whole plan might miss and Salinas will looking down the same end of the gunbarrel five years from now. Whether Measure K’s $18 million gamble will pay off, bringing peace to the troubled streets of Salinas, is anyone’s guess. Only one thing is clear: Doing nothing is not an option.