Lodi's police chief grimly reported Tuesday that gang crimes are up, including those that involve a weapon and those that claim a life.
Chief Mark Helms said his department is developing an aggressive, multi-level attack on gangs, however, and later Tuesday came some good news: The city has received a $250,000 grant to help fuel its campaign against gangs.
At a meeting Monday morning with the Lodi City Council, Helms presented a PowerPoint outline targeting the rise of gang violence and crimes in Lodi since 2010. And though the statistics are alarming, Helms assured council and community members that a plan is being put in place responding to the increase.
Helms chose 2010 as a starting point because the department began tracking gang activity via a computer software program halfway through 2009. The first complete set of data was compiled in 2010, giving the department a more complete picture of what and where officers most need to address the rising number of gang-related crimes.
According to data compiled by the department, the Eastside is the most prominent area for gang-related crimes, which include gang-related homicides.
In 2010, 202 gang incidents were reported to police. In just one year, the number of gang incidents reported jumped 25 percent to 253 incidents in 2011.
Helms said while that jump was significant, what was more alarming to him was that 11 percent of all gang crimes occurred on middle or high school campuses.
"It is going to take the entire community to do something (about gang prevention)," he said. "We tend to lose most kids (to gangs) between sixth and eighth grades."
Helms also targeted the number of gang-related assaults with firearms. In 2010, the department noted 12 reported incidents. In 2011, it bumped to 21 reported incidents — a 75 percent jump in one year.
And even more alarming, according to Helms, was the number of gang-related homicides, all of which involved a firearm. In 2010, no gang-related homicides were reported. In 2011, there were two — one in August and one in November. Both those cases are currently under investigation.
But in just the first three months of 2012, two gang-related homicides have already occurred. In both cases, two juveniles have been arrested in connection with the crimes and face murder charges.
Though arrests have been made, Helms alluded to the fact that the suspects were not easy to find.
"People are scared to death ... afraid to come out of their homes to identify (a gang member)," Mayor JoAnne Mounce said of the department's struggle to pinpoint possible gang members who have been involved in a crime. "The Eastside went to hell in a handbasket in the (late '80s or early '90s). We ignored it then and we are paying for it now."
Solving the issues that primarily plague the Eastside of Lodi will be a challenge, Helms said, but steps are already in place to address the problem.
Late Tuesday morning, the department received notification that the city had been awarded a $250,000 state grant that will be distributed over two years to the police department.
The grant will allocate funds such as $150,000 for special enforcement to tackle street crime, among other programs, and Helms said the grant would be a "catalyst" to bring the community together, rather than continue to have it divided due to gang-related crimes on the east and west sides of town.
Other tactics such as a "surgical removal" of gang members in Lodi will also help improve the crime rate in the community, Helms added.
By giving gang members a choice — leave the gang, leave Lodi or go to jail — police officers are allowing for a more "surgical approach" to remove gang-related crimes and violence.
Lodi resident Adam Cortes echoed Helms's belief that options are best for Eastside residents whom he said are looking for a second chance.
Cortes, who said he was given a chance to redeem himself after falling into the wrong crowd growing up, is now a father of three and said people are looking more for someone to believe in them than for ways to act out violently.
"How many more (people) need to die?" he said. "I do not want to see my children dead ... The Eastside is not another community, it is a part of Lodi. I had a chance to change, that is all (anyone) needs."
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