Sedona CALLAHAN, Writer

 

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All Together Now

By Sedona Callahan

The city of Salinas' report of fewer homicides in 1996 than in recent years, may be attributed in part to the growth of community-based programs, say city officials and representatives of grassroots community organizations.

"The first six months of this year have been exceptionally quiet," says Sgt. Bob Eggers, Salinas Police Department Community Services Unit supervisor. "You can try to figure out why, but I can't help but feel it (community-based efforts) has had an effect."

"In 1994, there were 25 homicides in Salinas, and most of those were gang-related," says Jorge Rifa, Salinas assistant city manager. "So far this year there have been only three, and none are gang-related."

Among these programs taking credit for the reduction of violence is Second Chance for Youth, a nontraditional community-based counseling agency that provides prevention education, intervention and information on all issues relating to gangs.

"Our program was designed to work on the streets, recruiting kids," says Brian Contreras, executive director. "We're more school-based now. Our target population is sixth to ninth graders, the age-group more prone to join gangs. We'll bring back older kids who say, 'I'm so-and-so (someone notorious), check it out. It ain't worth it. Take it from me.'"

Contreras says Second Chance has brought together members of rival gangs, offering mediation and arbitration, and has encouraged kids to stay in school and keep gang-related activities out. "The kids were tired of watching their backs all the time," Contreras says. "We started three years ago at North Salinas High School. That school was tops in expulsions and large gang confrontations. We offered something unique at the school. At first they (the administrators) were hesitant, then they looked at another year like the one they had just had, and they gave us free rein."

An umbrella group that also takes credit for reducing Salinas violence is Neighborhood Services, a city-sponsored agency that links community resources with the so-called Twenty-block area, a section of the city reporting the highest incidence of violence, bounded by Closter Park (South), May Avenue (North), Cortez (West) and New Deal and Burke Streets (East).

"My job is to link city services to people who need them, allowing residents to take action." says Lupe Garcia, Neighborhood Services coordinator. "We deal with issues like home inspections, code violations, overcrowding-what it looks like and who to call." Garcia says that each block sends a representative to a monthly meeting, where they are updated on services, such as a lighting installation, or HIV training.

"Results of our program have shown active participation by the residents. Just recently there was a drive-by shooting and the residents pointed right to the person who did it and identified him. The streets are cleaner, women are walking at night, children are playing outside, there's less crowding of vehicles parked in the road," Garcia adds. "We've noticed the residents have developed trust in the police officers assigned to the area."

The officers Garcia refers to are Jerry Gowin and Henry Gomez, full-time police assigned to the Twenty-block area. "These officers deal with non-emergency issues," says Eggers. "They cooperate with Lupe Garcia's service to find out what the needs of the residents are. For example, child safety is a big issue. In the past, if we saw a kid riding a bike without a helmet, we'd write a ticket. Everybody would be unhappy - the kid, the parents have to pay, and the behavior might not change. Now, we educate first, secure helmets for those who can't afford them. We issue citations as a last resort."

"The officers elicit the help of necessary city services, like parks and recreation or community development," continues Eggers. "When gang activity flares up, the Violence Suppression Unit is contacted."

The VSU-the city's gang task force - is made up of Salinas police, county sheriffs and representatives from the district attorney's office, and acts as a corps expressly dedicated to taking guns out of kids' hands.

According to assistant city manager Rifa, Salinas is now one of seventeen cities working with the U.S. ATF's Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative, a program designed to trace how guns get into kid's hands. Rifa also reports that the city's gang task force, or Violence Suppression Unit, has doubled.

"The Salinas Police Department has a seventeen-officer unit, which was started under the Federal Youth Firearms Violence Initiative," says Lt. Steve Hood, VSU commander. "We have ten to twelve programs that we utilize on any given day. We target youthful offenders by conducting surveillance, issuing search warrants, and checking parole probations. We work in areas where there is a high incidence of gang violence. In addition to the reduction of homicides this year, we've seen a drop in the number of drive-by shootings and firearms assaults. Only one of this year's three homicides was firearm-related. Misdemeanor assaults among juvenile offenders is the only area we've seen an increase in."

Also working on the challenge of curbing Salinas violence is the city's Violent Injury Prevention Coalition, a community collaborative operating in its third year, include the Twenty-block Project, Peacebuilders and the Salinas Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Project (Title 5).

Peacebuilders targets elementary school children, teaches positive behavior skills that will extend beyond the classroom into the home and community. "Our referrals to the principal's office are down 80 to 90 percent," says Alisal Union School District Superintendent Oscar Loya. "If we are respecting other people's rights, that's when we have peace. But if we ignore them, that's when violence begins. Violence cannot be dealt with by schools themselves, we're all in it together. "

The Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Project which focuses on children's attitudes and behaviors, and on building bonds between the family and school, is evaluating its first year's progress. According to Devorah Duncan, project coordinator, the two-part project provides after-school programs for at-risk youth. It brings social services into the neighborhoods such as counseling, adult literacy assessment, information and referrals by offering them at the local schools.

"The classroom teachers are reporting improvement in all areas of attitude, behavior, social interaction, and self-esteem," reports Duncan, in evaluating it's first year's progress. "The parents report changes in their children's social skills and when the children were asked to evaluate their own progress, more than 70 percent said the program had helped them."

"Preventing violence is reactive," says Rifa. "People have grown weary of violence, but if you talk about peace, they become vitalized. There are still plenty of issues," Rifa adds, "but every year we get smarter and learn more about how to get together for achieving results. We're improving our ability to reconcile our needs with the resources that we have. There's a realization that we've got to do a better job in reaching families and young children."

© 1996 Sedona Callahan