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Behind the Badge Combating gang crime: Step it up and take a look

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Mark Helms

Posted: Monday, December 5, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 6:56 am, Mon Dec 5, 2011.

Time flies. More than three months have passed since I became Lodi's new police chief, leaving the Stockton Police Department after 26 years. As I prepared for my first day of work, I paid close attention to several issues affecting the community and the Police Department.

Gang crime was at the top of the list.

My second day on the job was National Night Out. I was fortunate to spend a few hours that evening with Mayor Bob Johnson, who introduced me to dozens of residents. It was obvious that they truly love their community. Many were genuinely concerned about gang crime on the east side.

In my short time here, I've fielded a host of questions from the community about gangs following a surge of summertime gang incidents. As in past years, the Lodi Police Department bolstered its gang suppression efforts by redeploying officers and taking a zero-tolerance enforcement posture.

The results were encouraging. Gang activity quickly subsided and, as in the past, the Police Department returned to normal operations a short time later. Or not.

Later the same week, Lodi experienced its first murder of 2011. A gang-related shooting ended the life of a 35-year-old man near Elm and Garfield streets. More violent acts followed, including an afternoon shooting just steps away from an elementary school. Our city's second homicide of the year happened Wednesday, Nov. 16, just as I was preparing to submit this column to the News-Sentinel. In that case, a 20-year-old man was shot near Pine Street and Central Avenue. The incident happened just after 3:00 p.m., not far from a school campus.

Lodi Gangs 101

During week two in my new role, members of the Police Department's Special Investigations Unit (SIU) provided me a comprehensive briefing on Lodi gang crime. This multi-disciplinary team, which at the time was staffed with a sergeant and four detectives, is responsible for investigating gang crimes and other specialties like narcotics and vice.

SIU is a demanding assignment with a heavy case load. With additional support from patrol, the unit had already been working hard on the gang surge.

During the briefing, it came as no surprise that many of Lodi's gang problems are attributed to juvenile and young adult offenders from rival Hispanic gangs. These gangs had historically slowed their activity as enforcement increased, but this year was different. The frequency of gang-related violent crime jumped, and traditional suppression efforts were less effective than they once were.

Why was this year different? Perhaps the more prolific gang members had adapted to the Police Department's tactics and adjusted their own accordingly, or maybe the offenders simply became more tenacious and violent.

I also learned the SIU was inadequately staffed, and there was a gap in the department's ability to analyze crime patterns and disseminate useful information to officers in the field. On the brighter side, I was relieved to confirm my belief that the severity of street gangs in Lodi is less than many other cities.

The community's problem

Lodi is an amazing community where residents enjoy a quality of life that is unmatched in the Central Valley. People live here because they want to, not because they have to. It is important to keep it that way.

But let's be realistic. While gang violence may be more significant in other cities, Lodi is hardly immune from it. No community is. And while most of Lodi's gang crime occurs on the Eastside, the rest of the community has still been affected.

We've already experienced gang incidents elsewhere, even on school campuses. This should compel us all to recognize that gang violence isn't just a police problem or a nuisance that only affects distressed neighborhoods. On the contrary, gangs are a community problem we all must deal with.

To accept gang violence in any part of the community is an invitation for it in every part of the community. The Lodi Police Department recognizes this and is committed to protecting the entire community from gang violence.

Setting the tone

Your Police Department is working diligently to dismantle, disrupt and displace street gangs. Our philosophy is simple: Gang crime is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. In fact, by mid-August gang crime became the department's top focus.

By the end of that month, we selected two additional detectives — both Spanish speakers — for assignment in the SIU, increasing staffing from five to seven. We also hired a part-time crime analyst who is providing useful and current information on crime to officers in the field.

That's just the beginning. Work began on a new gang suppression initiative that is being structured to meet the city's immediate needs and will eventually be transformed into a long-term gang strategy.

In August, our officers began delivering a clear and simple message to gang members: Stop your behavior or face the consequences. They also began offering gang members three choices for their futures:

1. Leave the gang lifestyle. This is the path we hope they'll choose. It means cleaning up their act and becoming valued member of the community. If they make this choice, Lodi Police will do everything possible to help them succeed.

2. Leave Lodi. Gang crime will not be tolerated here. If gang members wish to continue their destructive craft, they'll need to do it somewhere else.

3. Go to prison. If they pass on options 1 or 2, Lodi PD is prepared to exhaust every resource at its disposal to ensure they're incarcerated for a very long time. We hope no one makes this choice.

Standing behind these choices will require much more than just tough enforcement. We'll also need access to alternative programming that emphasizes prevention, intervention, and education for gang members, their families, and other members of the community.

What's next?

In the next installment of Behind the Badge, I will discuss the major facets of an effective gang strategy and describe how the Lodi Police Department is transforming its approach to gang violence.

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  • Patrick W Maple posted at 4:05 pm on Mon, Dec 5, 2011.

    Pat Maple Posts: 1804

    Are we talking about the dunderheads in Washington DC?

  • Joanne Bobin posted at 9:53 am on Mon, Dec 5, 2011.

    Joanne Bobin Posts: 4305

    Out of curiosity - do gang members lose or gain power when they are imprisoned?

    I in no way believe gang members should receive "light" sentences for their crimes, as former Chief Yates believes "liberals" will afford them.

    But gang activity does not stop at the prison door. Our prisons need to be reformed to reduce the power that gang members hold over both the prison population and corrupt correctional officers.

  • Marc Yates posted at 6:35 am on Mon, Dec 5, 2011.

    MWYates Posts: 22

    I applaud the Chief on his efforts to eradicate gang violence. Unfortunately, when he states that the third alternative is long jail terms...I just don't think so. Liberal judges and governors of the Jerry Brown ilk will just set them free. In addition to great law enforcement, we need elected officials who will see that those convicted pay the price. If not, we the people will pay the price.


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