What is to be done about Lodi's gang problem?
Rising gang troubles aren't restricted to Lodi alone, and police throughout California's Central Valley report more gang activity. Many blame it on prison crowding, which leads to earlier releases of gang members whose affiliations only intensified while behind bars.
With a massive budget deficit, California won't be building more prisons any time soon. In other words, stopping gang violence has to be done at the local level.
It's possible to curb gang problems, say community leaders, police and gang researchers. In a time of little money, the best solution is for the citizens to get involved and keep youths from getting into gangs, they say.
And when crimes do happen, citizens need to know who to call and that it's OK to contact police.
The News-Sentinel asked a number of people how Lodi residents can take action against gang violence. Here are some opinions.
Adults must provide guidance
Jose Oropeza, who lives across the street from the scene of a Lodi gang shooting earlier this week, said youths need adults to give them attention and guidance.
"The only thing we can do is help them," said Oropeza, a former Mexican police officer who said he's seen brutal results of gang violence there.
"We need recreation places. Have softball teams, keep them busy. … They need people to go out and reach them — they won't come to us."
He said he wouldn't mind pitching in $100 to buy softball uniforms, and if enough people did the same thing, they could make a difference.
A nudge in the right direction
Stopping gang problems is not done overnight, said Jim Hernandez, a professor at California State University, Sacramento who has studied gangs for 30 years.
It takes a "sustained effort," he said, not just a community group that activates for a couple months and then fizzles.
Focusing on children now will prevent gang problems a decade from now — and he said a program like one currently being tested in Lodi is worth the effort. Lodi police are currently running GREAT — which stands for Gang Resistance Education and Training — at Beckman School and hope to expand it to more schools once they gauge the reaction.
In the meantime, Hernandez said citizens can volunteer and see youths as real people. "A good chunk of these kids come from some pretty crappy backgrounds," Hernandez said. "These kids have just been beaten up and nobody's been taking care of them."
Many troubled young people just need some attention and support, he said. He grew up in Pittsburg and got in trouble with police, but the officers gave him some positive attention. He went on to become a police cadet and has now been a professor for many years.
Older youths and young adults also need to know the future is important, he said.
"(Gang members) think to the next day, the next week. They don't see a future," he said.
The economy isn't helping.
"What's been proven to be effective are jobs programs, and right now people cannot afford them," he said.
One of Hernandez' colleagues, Dan Okada, studies Asian gangs and also said the community needs to be involved.
"The community can take a more active interest — not just sit around and fret, but get more engaged," he said.
Parents also need to be held more accountable, he said.
Parents must be involved
Victor Guzman, who lives on East Elm Street, said parents are crucial. He talks to his two teenagers and comes straight home after work in order to interact with them.
"Check on them, what they do. Talk to them all the time," he said. "If you don't, they'll go look for that."
He thinks neighbors need to communicate more, especially to take up the slack for those parents who do overlook their children.
"Sometimes the gangs are stronger than families," he said.
Councilwoman Mounce: A collective effort
"I truly believe that community-oriented policing works," said Lodi City Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce, who saw a man fall to the ground after being shot yards away from her house Tuesday night. "We've got to start engaging the eyes and ears of the community."
Years ago, she got involved in the former Eastside Improvement Committee and began going after landlords who never paid attention to their tenants. She also helped put together phone lists for the neighbors, so they knew how to contact each other.
She wants police, code enforcement and neighbors to all pitch in and refuse to let things build up until they get so far out of control that it's too late.
"This morning I was out in the neighborhood taking a picture of things that foster gang activity, like overflowing garbage cans, overgrown yards," she said this week. "We've got to save some kids here. That's really what this all comes down to."
Former gang members can make a difference
Lodi's neighborhood services manager, Joseph Wood, wants to see a group like Peacekeepers, which targets gang members in Stockton.
The group uses former gang members to show current members the long-term negative effects, and what prison is really like.
"If I had to pick one thing, that would be it, finding a way to get them here," Wood said. "They're very established and have a track record of getting in there and not just stopping kids from joining gangs, but getting them out of gangs."
Such a program could be eligible for community block grants, but the city would have to cut grant funding from something else, such as a food pantry or graffiti abatement. Perhaps other grants are available, though.
"It's long been my fear that serious resources aren't going to be put toward this until an innocent bystander is killed," Wood said.
A strong, focused police effort
Police need to focus on gang areas and know the whereabouts of all gang members, said City Councilman Larry Hansen, who is also a retired Lodi police chief.
Gang activity is not new, he said. He recalled one weekend during his tenure in which they saw three gang-related stabbings and a shooting.
"I filled every patrol car and (officers) stopped anyone and everyone. By the end of the night the only thing moving were black and whites and tow trucks," he said.
It might require shifting funds and having officers work overtime, Hansen said.
"You have to put some money into it."
Finding witnesses is a challenge
Police Sgt. Bill Alexander, who now heads the investigation unit that focuses on gangs, said people need to be willing to talk to police. Gang fights, stabbings and shootings happen quickly, and everyone scatters in moments, before officers arrive.
"The biggest thing people can do is come forward and be a witness. Police can only do so much; we live in America and can't take people's freedoms with no cause," he said.
Many people keep to themselves, never reporting what they saw because they worry about retaliation. That is actually very rare, Alexander said. Gangs do retaliate, but they target members of a rival gang, hardly ever going after random citizens who happened to call police.
Anonymous tips better than none
Anonymous calls are better than doing nothing. Interim Police Chief Gary Benincasa said police do still make arrests even without a witness' name.
"We've had a number of calls where people have seen things — alleged gang members loitering, firearms seen — and we've been able to go out and make arrests," he said.
He's trying to set up a neighborhood meeting soon, after talking with Mounce this week. Benincasa said police want to hear from the residents who live in the troubled areas, since officers can't be stationed on every block at all hours. His hope is to give people information on how to contact police, and to hear more about what they see every day.