New ways to cope with gangs: Officials eye gathering data, prisoner outreach

JULIA REYNOLDS (Herald Salinas Bureau) | October 11, 2010

Salinas is in dire need of two components that youth-violence experts say are required to surmount its gang problems: better information on its youth and gang crimes, and resources to deal with prisoners returning to the community.

That insight was among the “takeaways” from last week’s working session attended by city leaders in Washington D.C.

For two days, nine of the area’s elected officials, agency heads and law enforcement officers shared best practices with their counterparts from five larger cities in various stages of tackling youth violence. The meeting was the first of several the city will take part in under a new White House-sponsored pilot program called the National Forum on Youth Violence.

A Department of Justice analysis prepared in August pointed out weaknesses in the city’s ability to collect and analyze its gang crime data, a point driven home in Washington last week. The most critical need pointed out by government officials — and by Salinas’ partners from other cities — was its glaring deficiency in data collection and sharing.

One major difference between Salinas and cities showing success in lowering gang crime is that most of them have forged close relationships with universities.

Academic institutions have offered cities in-depth analysis of individual gangs, their rivalries and recent activities. That means not only being able to evaluate programs that are — or aren’t — working, it means being better able

to predict the groups likely to start shooting in the near future.

This kind of information could prove crucial in preventing the kind of retaliatory violence that in Salinas reached critical levels this summer and fall, despite an impressive overall drop in gang homicides.

Investigators believe that much of this year’s gun violence in Salinas involves young victims — and just as likely, young shooters — who get wrapped up in ongoing cycles of shootings and retaliations.

Deputy Police Chief Kelly McMillin, who attended the Washington meetings, said he was impressed that Memphis police are able to provide real-time crime data to a University of Memphis team.

Boston, where the Ceasefire violence intervention program was developed, has worked closely with Harvard University, where citywide studies are under way to track how demographic and neighborhood factors affect youth violence.

In Chicago, a study conducted by Northwestern University correlated drops in violence with the city’s version of Ceasefire on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

Salinas not only lacks that kind of academic support, it has more critical information needs. The police department, for example, has no crime analyst, although plans appear to be in the works to reorganize staff so an analyst can be hired.

Academia has helped schools, police and outreach workers know when to step in to help troubled kids.

It’s not just criminal histories that show when children are about to get into serious trouble, said Brian Contreras, director of 2nd Chance Family and Youth Services in Salinas.

Cities are studying other data, such as school attendance, family income and neighborhoods, which can help pinpoint when intervention is needed, he said.

Georgina Mendoza, who directs the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace, said the group plans to hire someone to do initial data crunching and to write grant proposals so more serious information collection can begin.

Mendoza said much information already exists, but there is no system to share it.

“We haven’t been able to look at, say, little Johnny Kelly — the police department isn’t going to know he’s been in trouble in school,” she said.

Mendoza said Justice Department official Gregory Jones has been assigned to work with Salinas and San Jose. Jones will hold monthly conference calls to assist the cities until the next meeting, Mendoza said.

Among Salinas’ strong points shared at the Washington sessions are its multi-agency efforts, including CASP and Ceasefire, as well as its ability to sustain ongoing prevention and intervention programs, such as Silver Star and the Rancho Cielo Youth Campus.

Latest approach

The Washington meeting represented the first manifestation of a new national approach to dealing with gangs.

For about a decade, forward-thinking agencies have relied on a now-classic, three-pronged approach to gang crime: prevention, intervention and police suppression.

Now a fourth prong has been added: prisoner re-entry.

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