At an elementary school in the heart of Lodi’s gang territory, conversation centered on improving police communication with the community during a bilingual forum Thursday evening.
The gathering also focused on making the campus itself safer by surrounding it with a 6-foot fence and installing doors that lock from the inside.
About 200 people crammed into the cafeteria at Heritage Elementary School to meet members of the Lodi Police Department and voice their concerns about the community they live in. The neighborhood has seen a spike in shootings, stabbings and gang-related violence since May.
“This is your problem, too,” said Lodi Police Chief Mark Helms. “We can’t just arrest our way out of this problem.”
Sgt. Fernando Martinez of the Lodi Police Department translated for Helms and other officers, who discussed how police have increased patrols to the area. He also spoke to parents who wanted to know how to recognize if their children are being courted by street gangs.
Maria Cervantes, principal of Heritage Elementary School, displayed a Cincinnati Reds baseball cap she had confiscated from a recently expelled student while Martinez spoke.
The red cap with a white “C” is commonly worn by Norteño gang members.
“The kids who wear these hats are not fans of the team,” Cervantes said. “They can’t tell you the name of one player or even what the team is.”
Heritage, located on South Garfield Street, recently had a lockdown when a drive-by shooting took place after school had ended for the day in early August. To make the campus safer, the Lodi Unified School District is installing a 6-foot security fence around the campus in the coming days, Cervantes said.
Non-reflective film will be placed on classroom windows to prevent people from peering inside, and doors are being installed in classrooms that can be locked from the inside. Viewing portals for teachers to observe what is happening outside without having to leave the classroom are also being installed, she said.
Lodi Mayor Bob Johnson attended the meeting and said he understood the need for increased security protocols at Heritage, but hates that the situation has become so dire.
“It pisses me off that we have to have an armed campus with security fences and peepholes in the middle of Lodi,” he said.
Multiple Spanish-speaking audience members nodded in agreement with Johnson’s remarks when they were translated by Cervantes.
When citizens spoke, they relayed fears of retaliation or deportation if they called police. One woman said she called 911 after a shooting on Garfield and Eden streets and was put on hold for 10 minutes while a translator was found.
The department does its best to answer emergency calls promptly, Martinez said, but sometimes a translator can be difficult to track down. He added that they often get multiple calls for the same incident, and will be obtaining information from one caller and relaying to officers on the scene. However, he urged her to be patient and please call the police.
Martinez also attempted to reduce fears that people who called the police would have their legal status called into question.
“The only time we look at citizenship is when someone is arrested,” he said.
One speaker in the audience drew loud applause from the crowd when he said the burden was on parents to make sure their children stay away from gangs.
“The police department and schools aren’t going to raise our kids for us,” Manuel Munoz said in Spanish. “You’ve got to be involved in your kids’ lives.”
The police are committed to helping the neighborhood combat gangs, Helms said, but they need citizens to be willing to speak up. While the fears of retaliation are real, gangs thrive on intimidation, he said.
“There comes a point where the community steps up,” said Helms. “Otherwise the violence will keep going on.”
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at firstname.lastname@example.org.