Friday, March 28, 2008

Texas talks gangs with Santa Barbara


Visiting officials from El Paso, Texas, told a group of high ranking Santa Barbara County and city officials yesterday they stemmed gang violence and other social ills in their area by working from the ground up.
First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, whose district includes Santa Barbara’s East and West sides, which have seen a steady increase in violence over the past year, called the meeting.

It was just one of many for the three El Paso men, who addressed a packed Our Lady of Guadalupe church on Thursday night, and had a meeting with Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez and other city leaders yesterday as well.
El Paso Neighborhood Services Coordinator Mark M. Alvarado said the Texas city, which borders Juarez, Mexico, unleashed an effort to battle crime in individual neighborhoods, and in the city of about 620,000, visible progress has been made.
“We’ve seen results,” he said. “It’s a bottom up approach. We’re not really trying to put a Band-Aid on a problem, we’re trying to support a comprehensive and holistic effort.”
At the heart of that effort, is getting those who don’t normally participate in the political process to speak out, Alvarado said.
In order to do this, he said neighborhood associations were created, where residents, from community activists to parents, are encouraged to tell their respective councilmember’s what they need.
The result is an empowering process, where residents see government respond to their needs, Alvarado said.
“It brings credibility to our process,” he said. “In order to get things done you’ve got to work with other people.”
When residents see the county or city is willing to step to the plate and invest in what they’re interested in, Alvarado said other agencies, like nonprofits and the business community are more interested in getting on board.
Carbajal said Santa Barbara has its share of community organizations, but many exist in affluent neighborhoods.
Santa Barbara City Councilwoman Helene Schneider said the city has established organizations at the city’s three community centers. But Carbajal said members of those groups are appointed by the city council.
Carbajal said he thinks Santa Barbara could benefit from an association or organization that’s even closer to the actual neighborhoods they would serve.
“I think we could always do more of that,” he said, adding that an environment needs to be established where the “lowest common denominator has the opportunity to participate.”

Working together

Alvarado said El Paso County leaders regularly meet with city officials to discuss their respective issues, a phenomena which rarely, if ever formally occurs in Santa Barbara.
Carbajal, possibly making reference to a series of recent meetings held by city of Santa Barbara leaders about youth violence that he wasn’t invited to, said he thinks communication needs to be improved between the two camps.
“I don’t think the county and the city do a very good job of working together,” he said. “We don’t do a good job of inviting each other to meetings. It’s a lot of turf stuff.”

The law enforcement perspective

El Paso County Attorney Jose R. Rodriguez said a gang injunction that targeted 39 of El Paso’s most hardened criminals was successful, but such injunctions must be used carefully.
He said the injunction was well planned and included a wide-reaching effort to inform the community and media of the injunction’s exact intentions. This was necessary to quell concerns that civil rights would be violated, he said.
When the gang injunction ended, 33 of the 39 targeted gang members were behind bars and crime in downtown El Paso took a 20 to 30 percent dive.
“It worked for us but every community is different,” he said.
Before becoming the county's top cop, Sheriff Bill Brown was chief of police in Lompoc, where he enacted a gang injunction that imprisoned 18 of that area’s gang leaders.
Though Brown considers the injunction successful, he said a flock of younger gang members quickly took leadership roles, and as a result, rivals within the gang broke out.
District Attorney Christie Stanley said she’s talked with Sanchez and other city leaders about a gang injunction.
“We’re always looking at the possibility,” she said. “It’s a tool that’s useful but we don’t want to use it unless it’s going to be useful.”
Brown brought up the recent conclusions reached by a blue ribbon commission he convened on jail overcrowding, which recommend a blended approach of enforcement, prevention and intervention to alleviate the problem. He used this situation to describe the problems with gang violence as well.
“Where I think we are the weakest is in our gang intervention,” Brown said.
Rodriguez acknowledged that intervention is difficult to get at, but the success in El Paso goes right back to collaboration with the community.
“The key to success in a lot of these areas is you’ve got to bring together everybody at the table,” he said. “The bottom line is the injunction was successful because we had everyone at the table.”

The root of the problem

Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf, who served on the Goleta School Board for 12 years, said she can see the roots of the gang problem evolve partly in the education system, where bilingual classes have been eliminated, children are taught to simply pass tests and few safety nets exist when students fall behind.
“It’s like being set up for failure,” Wolf said of the system.
Alvarado said El Paso, where 76 percent of the population is Latino and in some neighborhoods, as much as 70 percent of the population lack diplomas, they’re not exempt of education problems.
But he said a vigorous effort over the past few years to identify at-risk students at a young age and get them into GED and work programs as they’re leaving high school has done a great deal to help.
“Either put resources to educate or incarcerate,” Alvarado said
But even with all the well-intentioned programs money can buy, Rodriguez said children have to be reached in their own homes by their parents.
“The primary responsibility here is you, the parents,” he said. “You are the ones who have to take responsibility for your children.”
He added, however, that in some cases the most difficult thing to get people to understand is what their role in the process is.
El Paso City Councilman Steve Ortega closed the meeting by reminding those in attendance that the problem of gangs, drugs and violence are intertwined with a larger problem: poverty.
“These are symptoms to the greater problem in our communities,” he said.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"I think we could always do more of that,” he said, adding that an environment needs to be established where the “lowest common denominator has the opportunity to participate.”

What an unfortunate quote! I'm sure Carbajal didn't intend to cast pejoratives, but how would he like to be described as the "lowest common denominator" in his community?

Language matters. Please think before you spout.
--Linda Stephenson