Monday, December 3, 2007

EDITORIAL: Gang violence up dramatically


A top cop cut through a lengthy presentation to City Council on the effort this town is making to fight gang violence.

Gang crime in Santa Barbara soared 60 percent this past year.

Sixty percent.

It raises a critical question for lawmakers to consider: Is City Hall on the wrong track in its approach to an issue that, arguably, transcends everything else on its plate?

The eyebrow-raising figure popped out at the Nov. 20 council meeting. It came from the No. 2 guy in the city’s cop shop, Richard Glaus, the deputy chief.

Glaus later told me that the yearlong calendar period to which he was referring ended in October, just last month.

The 60 percent figure never appeared in the 10-page special report to the council by the SBPD and the parks and recreation agency. That’s because it surfaced almost at the last minute when Sgt. Ralph Molina, of the police gang unit, came up with the number, Glaus said.

That left it up to Glaus to communicate it to local lawmakers.

In a dark way, he said in a telephone interview, Santa Barbara is lucky. During the year of Latino gang violence, marked by two gang homicides and numerous street knifings, “by the grace of God, a knife didn’t get into the wrong place,” resulting in more deaths.

The 60 percent uptick is even more telling when placed in the framework of the written report: “...The police department allocates more police resources for youth and gang problems than any other specific public safety concern.”

Something doesn’t add up in this popular, beautiful city with a beachfront to die for. There’s a disconnect somewhere. Despite stepped-up law enforcement and more teen programs, something is out of whack.

Sixty percent.

Even Mayor Marty Blum, who said she reviews police reports, was unaware of the ugly figure.

“I knew it was way up, I didn’t realize it was that high,” she told me last week.

There is, not surprisingly, a political side to the gang mess.

Councilwoman Iya Falcone, not one to mince words, was blunt in declaring, in effect, it is no time for denial.

Returning to town on Sunday, Nov. 18, from a five-day National League of Cities meeting in New Orleans, she told the council that she caught up on her newspaper reading.

“I opened the papers to a litany of crime statistics that happened in the week I was gone. So the (gang) escalation is back without question. Without question.”

Falcone, in her second and last term on the council, is frustrated in her attempt to sell a new program designed to make a sweeping -- and lasting -- assault on gang violence. So far, it appears to be tangled in the politics of City Hall.

“That’s a shocking number,” she said of the 60 percent spike during a recent conversation.

Still, Falcone is not totally dismayed. She said she is considering running for mayor in 2009.

“There is a lesson to be learned here,” she told councilors. “When we get ahead of a problem we can’t stop addressing it ...It will come back.”

In case anyone missed her point, here’s a little history.

On the first day of Fiesta, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 1992, a 16-year-old Latino youth, raised in Santa Barbara, was stabbed to death during a nighttime gang fight. The confrontation took place at State and Carrillo streets, not far from where the fatal stabbing of a 15-year-old Latino occurred on another Wednesday, this past March 14, in the afternoon light.

Santa Barbara appeared stunned by the homicide of 15 years ago. Bill Moyers, the veteran public television journalist, dispatched a team to the city as part of a PBS special on teen substance abuse.

“A destructive force has been eroding this West Coast playground,” intoned a narrator.

A staged camera shot focused on Penny Jenkins, chief executive of the Santa Barbara-based Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse, and then-Councilman Gil Garcia, walking near the crime scene.

Things had gotten out of balance in Santa Barbara, said Garcia, now an architect.

Reflecting on the homicide during a recent interview, Frank Banales, executive director of Zona Seca, and a close friend of Garcia’s, referred to the 1992 gang slaying as a “big time” wake-up call for the city.

Things began to happen.

“Everyone in the community really came together,” said the longtime executive director of the nonprofit on West Figueroa Street, which deals with youth and adult substance abuse and family violence problems.

Bureaucracy can move slowly to meet a challenge, but move it did. A collaborative anti-gang network sprung to life. Here’s a snapshot of what happened, as provided by Banales.

A Fighting Back Task Force, based in Jenkins’ nonprofit, on east Canon Perdido Street, was formed in September 1993 to combat gang violence. It had the backing of the City Council, the city’s school board, clergy and the Board of Supervisors.

Then, in May 1994, the task force met with the Santa Barbara Foundation to spark a network of support and funding to kick-start the effort. The foundation came through with a $25,000 grant, and a Santa Barbara Pro-Youth Coalition was born.

The next year, 1995, the coalition was selected as one of a dozen national violence prevention groups, financed by a network of private nonprofits.

Voila! For more than three years, underwritten at the rate of $500,000 annually, the Santa Barbara war against gang violence was launched. Zona Seca, under the coordinating effort of Banales, opened an office at City Hall.

Foundation funding, however, doesn’t last forever. It has to be renewed. The cash flow dried up in less than four years.

For his part, Charles Slosser, chief executive of the Santa Barbara Foundation, on east Carrillo Street, which funds more than 400 programs in the county, said that it’s not surprising that the cash tap ran dry.

“It wasn’t designed to be an entity that would go on in perpetuity,” he said in a separate conversation.

A week after the first of two gang homicides here this year, on Wednesday, March 21, Banales spoke at a gang violence meeting at La Casa de La Raza, a Latino community center on east Montecito Street.

Among those sitting at a rectangular wooden table were council members Falcone, who said she led the discussion, and Roger Horton; Supervisor Salud Carbajal, whose 1st District includes the eastside and westside neighborhoods; and community leaders.

In a 15-minute talk without notes, Banales said he urged a revival of the Pro-Youth Coalition model that had success in reducing gang violence.

“We have the experience in the community with (youth) programs,” he recalled saying. “You need to develop the sustainable revenue streams to continue the work forever.”

Nothing happened.

“It was like shining a light on deer,” Banales said. “They freeze.”

The money is out there to revive a similar program, he said.

“This is one of the wealthiest counties in the state of California,” he told me. “People are willing to step forward with the money.

“But it takes leadership to have the desire to seek the money. They don’t have the desire to do something about it.”

It’s been years since Banales and Falcone have engaged in conversation, the councilwoman said. But, it appears, like planets in alignment, they are on the same page.

To stay on top of the gang problem you have to keep the cash stream flowing. A completely new concept may be needed for the city to effectively wage the war, she suggested.

To use her metaphor, a city hub should be created with spokes reaching out to agencies and nonprofits, and then into neighborhoods. Otherwise, the most noble efforts are wasted.

The result: a 60 percent increase in gang violence in the space of a year.

In recent years, cities, such as Seattle and Portland, got the message. Local government provides the financial muscle and structure to help and enhance immigrant communities.

“Neighborhood villages” are created to work in tandem with local government, including law enforcement, to fight gang violence and steer communities in positive directions.

Mayor Blum is aware of these programs. With eight years as a city councilor and another two terms as mayor, she has, as the saying goes, “been around the block” on the gang violence issue.

Realpolitik appears to be her approach.

On the one hand, she told me, she doesn’t want to be seen as a ”mayor (that) is going to pull in outside people to tell (Santa Barbara) what to do.”

Still, she has a pet phrase -- “legal larceny.” It means, she said, stealing ideas from programs of other cities and putting them to work locally.

A few weeks ago, Gil Garcia, the former councilman, called Blum and suggested that the city host a meeting here to take a look at El Paso’s Neighborhood Services program.

He also called the city’s top cop, Chief Cam Sanchez, to discuss his proposal.

Garcia said the chief, whose agency has been scouting other cities on their methods of dealing with gang neighborhoods, was enthused.

”Let me be the lead guy on this,” is the way the chief reacted, Garcia said.

Sanchez, in a telephone conversation, said he’s constantly on the lookout to “bring ideas back to the mayor and the council without reinventing the wheel.”

If another city’s gang control blueprint turns him on, and he concludes, “damn, we can do that,” then, he said, he will tell what he observed to the mayor and the councilors.

Garcia then contacted Mark M. Alvarado, coordinator of El Paso’s 3-year-old city-funded Neighborhood Services program. Smothering gang crime is a top priority for the Texas city with a population of 750,000.

The idea Garcia floated was to give Sanchez an insight into how the El Paso program operated.

Alvarado, a Santa Barbara native who grew up on the lower eastside, has close ties with Garcia, working on the former councilman’s campaign staff in 1992 during his successful first run for a council seat.

Alvarado is no stranger to violence. His older brother, he recalled, was wounded in a 1981 drive-by shooting at Canon Perdido and Milpas streets.

Alvarado discussed the proposal with Sanchez earlier this month. It involved himself and Paul Cross, the city’s assistant police chief, flying to Santa Barbara to make a presentation at a public meeting on the effectiveness of the El Paso program.

“It has to be a true community effort,” Alvarado said in a telephone conversation. He said it should involve the mayor, the council and its staff.

“You have to target neighborhoods. You have to identify who the career criminals coming into the neighborhoods are.

“If you apply what we did here, I think you’ll see a change.”

It appears the get-together has a green light – but not in Santa Barbara.

Instead, Cam Sanchez said, he will fly to El Paso early next year.

“I will go there,” he said a few days ago. “I want to see it in action,” a reference, among other things, to the monthly meetings between El Paso’s cops and the neighborhoods.

“The price of a plane ticket,” Sanchez said. “A great investment.”


Anonymous said...

is it really a surprise that the rise in the hispanic population, brings a rise in gang violence? those two things go hand in hand. some people call it a culture clash. those people are wrong. it is just about people not assimilating to the american way of life. they act like they do in their own third world countries. they need to go back to those countries, and destroy them. stop ruining our country.

Anonymous said...

That's it? Hispanic population & gang violence, they need to go back to those countries.

There are no other factors? During war times, crime goes up. The activist from Texas said “It has to be a true community effort”, we lost a daily community newspaper and have sorry local coverage for all citizens. There was a recent article on the man found in a sleeping bag, the investigation brought out the thriving business of drug cartels and the treacherous people involved with the lucrative illegal marijuana business. The sheriff referred to the border restrictions as resulting in drug cartels changing the tactics, more cartel growing business is here now. Do you hear anyone else mention a downside to fencing in the border? Santa Barbara is in denial.

It takes a television journalist from out of town to say "substance abuse." Young people are given medications by pros and no one cares. The adults are medicated, too.

When they say "gang" are they only talking about 10 to 18 years of age Hispanics? They are more like the canaries in a mine, they have the attention now, but that's not the whole problem.