Gang Prevention Programs Take Hit

Financial Crisis Hinders Non-Profit, Law Enforcement Efforts to Quell Crime.

By Nathan Houle (Daily Nexus – UCSB)
November 30, 2009
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In 2007, 14-year-old Ricardo Juarez stabbed Luis Angel Linares, 15, to death in front of Saks Fifth Avenue on State Street. The incident was a wake-up call for locals, many of whom were unaware of the gang problem simmering beneath Santa Barbara’s affluent façade.

According to officials, gang-related crime in the Goleta and Santa Barbara is on the rise. There are currently three major gangs operating locally — G-13 (Goleta-13) claims the majority of the Goleta and Isla Vista area with 248 documented gang members, while the Westside and Eastside gangs operate in Santa Barbara city with 317 and 358 documented gang members, respectively.

Marc Hammill, a deputy in Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Dept. Gang Unit, credited the rise in gang activity in part to the fallout from the current financial crisis.

“It’s indicative of the economy,” Hammill said. “The economy is bad right now. People are hurting for jobs, and crime goes up in times like these.”

Despite a prolific presence in Santa Barbara and Goleta, gang activity in Isla Vista seems to be at an all-time low. Lt. Brian Olmstead of the Isla Vista Foot Patrol attributed much of the reduction in gang activity to the conversion of permanent housing along Picasso and El Greco Roads to student housing, which resulted in the eviction of many families and potentially at-risk youth.

However, the level of gang activity in the I.V. area seems to remain a point of contention among government officials.

“According to the [Santa Barbara] Sheriff’s Department, we don’t have any specific gangs operating in the Isla Vista area,” 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr said. “Sometimes they see gang members that come into town from other areas, but we don’t have any here.”

Olmstead, on the other hand, said that there is in fact a gang presence in I.V., although it is not as strong as it used to be.

“It’s safe to say gang members live in Isla Vista and operate both in I.V. and throughout Goleta,” Olmstead said.

Olmstead attributed the majority of property and violent crime in I.V. to individuals unaffiliated with gangs, however.

“Unfortunately, students and out-of-towners contribute more crime in Isla Vista than gang members do,” he said.

Law and Order

Santa Barbara County has long been plagued by rampant gang violence.

Law enforcement action against gangs peaked in 2007 when the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Dept. teamed up with state and federal law enforcement for Operation Gator Roll, a massive operation targeting leadership within Santa Barbara’s Eastside gang.

According to Dep. Hammill, keeping up with gang crime today has become a problem.

“We’ve done a lot less search warrants and arrest warrants since we’ve cut back,” Hammill said. “We can go out and contact gang members any time of the week, no problem. Whether we arrest them or not is a different story.”

The Gang Unit has been shown no budgetary mercy in the wake of the economic crisis. The Unit has seen its staff slashed from eight full-time officers in June 2007 to its present staff of two full-time officers and a temporary assistant officer.

The judicial arm of law enforcement has suffered as well. Chief Trial Deputy and acting District Attorney Joshua Lynn said that extensive budget cuts have had an enormous impact on not only how the district attorney’s office is staffed, but also on which crimes it can prosecute.

According to Lynn, investigations into crimes such as car burglary, trespassing and theft have been allocated fewer resources.

“The reality is, our first obligation is community safety, and gangs are one of the biggest threats to that. Other things aren’t investigated or prosecuted as thoroughly because we can only prosecute one crime at a time,” Lynn said.

Non-Profit Efforts

The recession has also hit local crime prevention organizations.

“We’re not getting the foundation grants that we’ve got in the past,” Nancy Davis, founder and director of City at Peace — a local after-school theater program for at-risk youth, said. “The powers that be need to understand that they need to be consistent and fund prevention groups like ours. It’s an investment in our youth.”

However, Davis did note that her program has not suffered as much as other similar groups in the area.

“As far as our program goes, we’re really lucky,” Davis said.

Primo Boxing, which provides an array of services to at-risk-youth such as boxing lessons and help with homework, is in serious danger of shutting its doors. Until last year, Primo Boxing garnered about 20 percent of its annual budget from Pi Kappa Alpha’s annual Fight Night event. The event, which ran for 16 years straight, fell through last March when PIKE was stripped of its university charter after two UCSB students were assaulted outside of the fraternity house on Embarcadero Del Norte.

Since then, no organizations have stepped forward to host the annual philanthropy, leaving owner Jean Pommier worried about the financial future of Primo Boxing. However, Primo Boxing has not been entirely without community support. After Fight Night collapsed last year, many local fraternities donated money to the program — money Pommier says helped Primo break about even with preparation costs.

The City of Santa Barbara has also stepped in to help the program. In April, the city recognized Primo Boxing as an effective means to deter youth violence by slashing its yearly rent from $19,464 to $10,000 and waiving the program’s $33,760 debt to the city.

Pommier, however, said this support might not be enough.

“What we’re doing right now is looking forward to the next couple of months,” Pommier said. “What are we going to do? How are we going to do it? Are we going to be able to keep the doors open? I have to keep an optimistic outlook and think, ‘I’ll find a way.’ I just don’t know what would happen to some of these kids if we weren’t there.”

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