Calif. city unveils new gang tactics

"Community-oriented policing with a twist"

By Julia Reynolds
The Monterey County Herald

SALINAS, Calif. — The Salinas Police Department is preparing to unveil a pilot program in which "all city departments" will focus on a defined area that engenders most of the city's gang violence, Police Chief Dan Ortega said Monday.

Ortega said his staff is in the final stage of development for plans he will present to the City Council in coming weeks.

The program centers on a form of community-oriented policing with a twist: getting most or all city departments to focus on the neighborhood with the most gang crime, while cutting through bureaucracy to help residents improve the area.

"We're going to assign a team to work with people in that area to make it as safe as we can," Ortega said.

A police supervisor will be in charge of the team, whose members will make themselves known to the target area's residents and help them take care of their neighborhood in ways beyond just fighting crime.

"When (residents) need assistance from, for instance, a code enforcement officer, they won't have to go through the typical bureaucratic rounds," Ortega said.

Now, an officer has to hand over a card with another department's phone number, he said. But the new team's supervisor should be able to call the code officer for the resident, he said.

And residents will know the team's officers by face and name and should feel free to call them with concerns, he said.

"Somebody can have (a team member's) cell phone number, so they can say, 'I'm going to call Officer Garcia. It's not an emergency, but he needs to know this.'"

Ortega said his department wants to make it "as seamless as possible" for residents to get the help they need, whether it's calling police to a crime scene or cleaning up graffiti.

"Whatever the issue is, we're going to be able to handle it," he said.

Asked why this type of approach wasn't in place before, Ortega said it's been a question of resources.

The program has no special funds to pay for the stepped-up effort, but takes advantage of the fact that the department now has a lower personnel vacancy rate than last year.

Law enforcement agencies across the country have suffered from declining recruitment and retention rates for officer positions, and Salinas has been no exception. But recently, that trend has begun to turn around.

"We're starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel," Ortega said. In 2006, his department had 25 unfilled vacancies, but currently has only 16. And Ortega predicts that within 30 to 60 days, the department will be down to "single-digit vacancies," which will help him place more officers in the target zone. He said the department has recently been fortunate to draw officers from other agencies.

Mayor Dennis Donohue on Monday said the program will target a section of East Salinas within the 93905 ZIP code where 74 percent of the city's gang violence occurs.

While Donohue described a "10-block area," Ortega said the exact boundaries are still being determined by police.

"It could cross beat boundaries, ZIP codes and council districts," he said.

Police Cmdr. Trevor Iida, who heads the Community Safety Alliance created last year by Donohue's office, said that group will also be closely involved.

The Police Department is the lead agency in the effort, Iida said.

Like traditional community-oriented policing, the pilot program depends on gaining the trust and involvement of residents, something Ortega said Salinas is more than ready for.

"I sense that people in the community are just getting fed up. I think there are enough people out there who want to be involved, especially if they see the Police Department is willing to come out and work with them," he said. The new safety alliance can be credited with building some of that momentum, he said.

Ortega said he's seen success with similar programs in San Jose, where he was an officer before taking over as Salinas police chief in 1999.

But in the end, the program's success will depend on the police team's members being "willing to work hand-in-hand with the community, hearing what their issues are," he said.

The idea to intensely focus on a specific geographic area came about after one of several weekend gang shooting spikes last year.

"We know it's not going to stop all the shooting, ... it's not going to prevent that dreaded weekend. But we're not going to sit on our hands," he said. "It has been successful."

Ortega said he expects to present details, including more about how other city departments will be involved, to the City Council around the end of the month.

Copyright 2008 Monterey County Herald
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