After four people were killed in eight months and gang graffiti had become commonplace, Galt police decided to try to get ahead of crime before it happened.
This past summer, the Galt Police Department revived a section within the detectives' division and assigned two officers to work on the Special Team Enforcement Program.
Four months later, the STEP officers - detectives Bruce Ramos and Paul Beckham - say they're making progress on gang-related problems, and now they're going after drugs, too. Of course, they're still focusing on gang crimes, and last month arrested two people on suspicion of attempted murder in connection with a drive-by shooting.
Two men were injured Aug. 27 when vehicles drove by a home on Tudor Street and at least one occupant opened fire. The victims were documented gang members, STEP detectives said, and two weeks later they had enough information to get arrest warrants for the alleged drivers.
Martin Hernandez, now 20, of Watsonville, was arrested Sept. 15 and Armando Rios, 19, of Acampo, was arrested the following day. Both are charged with attempted murder and remain in the Sacramento County Jail without bail. They will return to court Oct. 17.
So far, police have not seen any retaliation for that shooting, and they hope it's partly because they're out on the streets.
Each week they conduct probation and parole searches, Detective Bruce Ramos said, and they regularly stop youths who appear to be congregating and wearing gang colors.
One recent day, Ramos and Beckham were cruising through Galt in an unmarked car when they spotted two teens known to have gang ties.
They stopped the youths, searched them and talked to them - all while the boys cussed at them. A female resident in a nearby house emerged after the boys left, shocked that they were so disrespectful.
It's nothing new for Ramos, who has been with the department since 1991 and saw STEP operate roughly a decade ago, though it was disbanded about four years ago.
"It did well then, because whenever you've got a specific team going out to attack a specific problem, the problem diminishes," Ramos said.
Four months into the revived STEP operation, it's making progress, said Lt. Jim Uptegrove, who oversees the unit and several other detectives who help when needed.
STEP detectives• Paul Beckham has been a Galt Police officer since 2002. He said he likes patrol but wanted to be able to tackle crime before it happened.
• Bruce Ramos became a part-time reserve officer for Galt in 1991 and became a full-time officer when a position opened in 1995. He previously worked six months for the Tracy Police Department. He saw STEP operate in the late 1990s and said he thinks it makes a positive difference.
"There's been an immediate impact with the lack of graffiti, identifying gang members, more probation searches," he said. "We're not seeing as many kids out there with outstanding warrants because we've cleaned a lot of them up."
The unit reformed mainly because police were seeing an increase in gang activity among teenagers, Uptegrove said.
Since then, the detectives have documented more gang members, and Ramos said he and Beckham have a roster of 40 to 50 Hispanic gang members, as well as half a dozen white supremacists.
Their work isn't always obvious since it's a "proactive" approach designed to stop crime before it starts, and because drug involvement isn't always obvious to citizens, Beckham said.
"We're trying to keep the graffiti down because that's the one thing everybody sees and complains about," he said.
Uptegrove said graffiti has dropped since STEP started in June, though it flared briefly last weekend.
"One kid with a spray can wreak havoc within 30 minutes," he said.
It's too soon to tell if crime has gone down with the arrival of STEP, but the detectives said they've been able to get a handle on the main gang problems to the point that they can expand to narcotics investigations.
In the meantime, they're still regularly contacting those on probation and parole, and they frequently cruise past schools to check for problems.
First published: Friday, October 13, 2006