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Community Voices Confronting gangs in Lodi: Police Chief Mark Helms

‘We're doing a great deal to fight gangs ... we’re about to do more, but we can’t do it alone.’’

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Posted: Saturday, March 24, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 8:05 pm, Mon Apr 23, 2012.

Four gang-related homicides have occurred in east Lodi since last August. Each crime was committed with a firearm that was in the hands of a juvenile or young adult. One of the victims was an 18-year old Lodi woman. She had graduated from a local high school and, by all accounts, had no gang ties and a bright future ahead of her.

That's just part of an uncomfortable but real message I delivered during a City Council study session on gang violence last Tuesday.

The numbers tell a very clear story: Gang-related crime and other incidents increased 25 percent in 2011 from the previous year, and the frequency of gang-related crimes involving firearms increased 75 percent during the same period. What's more, 11 percent of reported gang-related incidents occurred on middle school and high school campuses. At present, the Lodi Police Department has vetted 249 individuals in our city as documented gang members or associates. In reality, we know the true number is much greater.

Community members frequently ask me what the Police Department is doing about gang crime. My answer: We're doing a lot, and we're doing it well. Last summer, gang enforcement became a top priority in the department. Since then, we've dedicated additional resources to fight gang violence, and we've begun adjusting our business model to ensure our suppression efforts are as effective as possible and focused in the right places.

We are doing a great deal to fight gangs, and we are getting results. We're about to do more, but we can't do it alone.

Why? Because gangs aren't just a policing problem, they're a community problem. Gang life begins in the home, where parents at times either fail to recognize the warning signs or neglect to take action when gang affiliation is apparent. Many young gang members are the children of gang parents. That's a barrier that's virtually impossible to break through.

Incorrigible behaviors are further cultivated and reinforced in neighborhoods where gang influences are prevalent and strong. Criminal behavior becomes more pervasive. Eventually, overachievers in the world of gang crime find themselves in prison, finally reaching the pinnacle of gang life.

It's a cycle that repeats over and over.

Like other communities, Lodi will soon begin an effort to break — or interrupt — that cycle. This week, our city was awarded a $250,000 grant from the state of California to impact gang violence on three different but important fronts: suppression, intervention and prevention.

To be known as the Lodi Gang Reduction, Intervention, and Prevention program, or Lodi GRIP, we structured the grant based on our greatest needs: $150,000 for additional suppression and enforcement, $50,000 to improve neighborhoods by combating nuisances and blight caused by gang members, and $50,000 for community organizations that will help us provide alternatives to at-risk kids. The city of Lodi also expects to implement an evidence-based intervention program to help keep kids out of gangs.

By no means will Lodi GRIP be soft on crime or a "hug-a-thug" program. To the contrary, its main focus is aggressive enforcement and suppression, with a strong emphasis on seizing guns from gang members and removing the most prolific gang offenders from our community.

In addition, the program will be an opportunity to start something new in the community: a way out for those with the courage to take it.

Lodi GRIP is not the answer to our gang problem, but it is a great start. Gangs will always exist, even in communities of choice like Lodi. But that doesn't mean we should tolerate their behavior or let them feel comfortable here.

I am excited for Lodi and confident that Lodi GRIP will be a catalyst to bring the community even closer together. The newfound momentum will help us reach the next level in our ability to reduce gang violence and make the entire community safer.

Mark Helms is Lodi's police chief.

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