Gangsters shoot up Salinas while city leaders vet peace strategy.

The Battle For Hearts And Minds: Team-Oriented: Salinas Police Cmdr. Kelly McMillin (right) and Community Safety Director Trevor Iida are calling for more community involvement in gang suppression.—Adam Joseph

As much as Mayor Dennis Donohue wants to see his “city at peace,” the recent streak of drive by shootings show that Salinas is far from harmony. At least 18 people have been shot in the past two weeks. It appears police have calmed the crossfire with extra patrols and help from the Monterey County Gang Task Force. But increased enforcement may only silence the gunshots until the next hot, holiday weekend. Meanwhile, the real solution – an effective citywide gang prevention and intervention strategy – is several months away.

While violence periodically flares up in Salinas, this Labor Day weekend was especially horrendous, with multiple people getting gunned down on the same day. On Sept. 3 two men and three women were shot at the corner of Hebbron Avenue and Jefferson Street. Police say the victims in this case don’t appear to be gang members or criminals, and can’t explain why the victims were targeted.

Although police won’t specify which gangs committed the shootings, it’s clear that rival gangs are largely responsible for the crime surge.

About midnight on Sept. 3 a man called out a gang slogan before firing six rounds at a couple sitting in a parked van at the 700 block of Williams Road. Later that night, two Latino gang members were shot near Central Park, according to police.

Unlike most gang-related shootings this year, where the violence was Latino-on-Latino, at least one recent shooting seemed to target African-American gang members. On Sept. 1 three African-Americans were shot in front of a known gang house on Cabrillo Avenue. Early the next morning, three suspects described as black males fired shots into a home on the 300 block of Soledad Street. Salinas Police Cmdr. Kelly McMillin says investigators haven’t pinned down whether there is a clash between Latino and African-American gangs. McMillin says police are also investigating whether there is a link between the crimes and a fight that broke out between suspected Latino and African-American gang members after a Salinas High School football game on Aug. 31. In this incident police arrested a 16-year-old boy for possessing a loaded, semi-automatic handgun.

As is typical with gang-related crimes, police have limited information to work from because witnesses and victims are afraid to identify suspects. This is part of the mentality that Community Safety Director Trevor Iida wants to change.

Iida, who started his new role in March, is at the forefront of a multi-faceted, peace initiative. Donohue and Iida have already enlisted the help of religious leaders, grandmothers and various organizations to root out gangs. But Salinas’ gang violence is still something many residents take for granted.   

“We have a passive acceptance of the gang problem in this community,” Iida says. “We need to get beyond that where it is completely, completely unacceptable and we’ll do everything possible to prevent that.”

Getting Salinas to unite against gang violence will not be simple. There are as many as 3,000 gang members and associates in the city, authorities estimate. For thousands of residents, having a friend or relative that is in a gang is a fact of life. The city – particularly east Salinas and pockets throughout town – is also ripe with the conditions that harbor gangs: poverty, overcrowding, single parent households, lack of recreation and open space.

But under the mayor’s leadership, the City is laying the groundwork for a long-term strategy to prevent kids from becoming street thugs. Iida says the gang problem cannot be solved by cops and politicians alone. “This is not just a police department problem or a city hall problem,” Iida says. “This is a community issue.”

• • •

Gang prevention begins with good parenting. Iida says a shoving match over a basketball in elementary school can escalate into a shootout in high school if nobody intervenes. Kids who aren’t taught respect and conflict resolution at home need teachers, after-school tutors and mentors to fill in.

“We need to develop our kids so they are prepared to live in a peaceful community and don’t have to fight the challenges of gang violence on a daily basis,” Iida says.

Beyond the home, city leaders also want neighbors to get to know each other and work to solve their conflicts. To this end the City has added two neighborhood services coordinators and has officers actively setting up crime watches. But this approach is really the antithesis to modern suburbia, where people don’t work and live in the same place while keeping their doors locked and shades drawn at night. The fragmentation of the city into distinct north, east and south sections also complicates uniting residents.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” Iida admits. “We are taking on the role of social reformers almost.”

In addition to preventing gang recruitment, the City wants to give gangsters a way out. Dubbed the Gang Prevention Initiative, the program would identify gang members as well as associates and funnel them into services such as anger management, drug counseling and job training. The initiative is similar to the county-operated Silver Star Resource Center, which houses numerous social service and educational agencies in the old Natividad Medical Center building.

Iida says Salinas’ program would be different in that the City Council – under the advice of a policy and technical team – would allocate funds to community organizations for specific programs. Iida says the initiatives could include putting a library card in the hand of every first grader or a tattoo removal program for former gang members. The two teams will also hold the organizations accountable for their progress.

But this part of the peace strategy won’t be in place for at least six months, Iida says. Members of the policy team will meet on Sept. 27 to start forming its goals and priorities. Next, the technical team, which will primarily be made of service providers, will be created. The two teams will then develop a plan and process for spending the $1 million Salinas has set aside for gang prevention and intervention.

Even with the plan in place, it will take years to seriously reduce gang violence in Salinas. The City is modeling its approach after that of San Jose, which cracked down on gangs in 1991. San Jose, while much safer than before, still has some 4,200 validated gang members.

 Although Salinas’ strategy may not prevent the next wave of gang violence, leaders say the plan will eventually lead the city to peace.

“We need to take those steps to make this a better community in the long run,” Iida says. “This is really an investment for the future.”  

ANYONE WITH INFORMATION about Salinas’ recent shootings can call the police department’s anonymous tip line at 775-4222. To set up a neighborhood watch call 758-7247. 

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