This is Police Work? Building Trust in Salinas, Calif., to Reduce Violent Crime

August 15, 2012

By John A. Calhoun and Kelly McMillin

Excerpted from a recent report by Officer Rich Lopez, Salinas, Calif.:

"Christian had expressed a desire to get a job.  We found that an auto body shop on East Alisal Street, a block away from his house, would be willing to accept youth to learn a trade...We visited Mr. Toro [school official]...[and] encouraged Christian and his mom to head to the county employment office...We all went together and confirmed that Christian handed off the job permit to get the ball rolling..."

"Our team discovered that an adult male Norteño criminal street gang member was associating with several minors...We have targeted him for a stay away order..."

"Giovanni admitted getting into a fight because [people on] Facebook said Sureños were going to jump his friend...A few days later, we went to the soccer complex and watched Giovanni play soccer with his team.  He's pretty good, so we encouraged him to stick with this instead of gangs..."

"George was arrested for shoplifting at the mall...George did the right thing and 'manned up.' George is now working as an ice cream push cart vendor..."

Officers Rich Lopez and Jeffrey Lofton have been assigned to work in Salinas' Hebbron Heights District, an area characterized by poverty, high crime and low educational achievement.  Their job?  Knock on doors.  Get to know neighborhood residents.  Arrest, if necessary, but primarily help youth get jobs, advocate for them in school, support them in sports activities. Build trust with youth and parents.

Build trust in Salinas, where the trust gap between city officials and residents, many of them poor, many of them undocumented agricultural workers, has been a yawning chasm stretching back to John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath days?  Build trust in a city of 150,000 whose homicide rate in 2009 stood at four times the national average and triple that of the rest of the state?  Build trust in a city home to 71 gangs (a dozen actively shooting at any given time), 3,500 gang members and associates, and two state prisons?  Build trust at the confluence point of the Sureño and Norteño territory, the "boundary" between two of the state's most violent gangs?

Build trust amidst all of this?  Yes. And it's paying off.  Shootings fell from 151 in 2009 to 131 in 2010 to 49 in 2011.  Homicides showed a similar drop - from 29 to 20 to 12 in that same time.  Most importantly, wary residents have ventured out to work with city and county leaders to reclaim their neighborhoods.

What happened?  A visionary, tireless Mayor Dennis Donohue has partnered with one of this article's authors - Police Chief Kelly McMillin - and Salinas Community Safety Director Georgina Mendoza to pull together all key leaders in Salinas and Monterey County, channeling their efforts through the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace (CASP).  Chaired by the mayor and a retired juvenile court judge, with Mendoza serving as its executive director, CASP rests on the core belief that nothing will change unless all key community entities make specific commitments to stop crime and help build communities that do not produce crime.  More than 40 strong, CASP members include education professionals, law enforcement officials, probation officers, public health professionals, members of faith communities, family counseling and mentoring experts, and community residents.  All pledge to participate in a citywide plan that blends prevention, intervention, enforcement, and reentry to reduce violence and improve community well-being.

A Comprehensive Strategy for Violence Reduction

As a result of its participation in the 13-site California Cities Gang Prevention Network - an initiative co-sponsored by NLC and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency - and the Obama Administration's six-city National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, the City of Salinas developed its Comprehensive Strategy for Community-Wide Violence Reduction

Overseen by CASP, local leaders first implemented the strategy in the Hebbron Heights neighborhood of east Salinas, selected because it was one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by firearms violence, home to two opposing gangs, and yet filled with long-term residents, two parks and a community center.  With the community center as a base of operations, CASP deployed a Cross-Functional Team (CFT) of professionals from the city, youth outreach, clergy, behavioral health, education, public health, probation, police and community members.  The CFT's first order of business was to agree that the information each agency held on the at-risk youth in Hebbron would have to be shared and discussed if there was any hope to intervene effectively in children's lives.

Armed with this information, Officers Lopez and Lofton spend their days calling on probationers, talking with parents about their children's problems, holding conflict resolution meetings, and discussing neighborhood issues and challenges with residents.

Changes within the Salinas Police Department most dramatically manifest how CASP represents a seismic shift in how its members do business.  Like other cities in California, Salinas has faced severe budget shortages.  The police department alone saw the number of sworn officers reduced from 187 to 155.  In spite of this, the city believed that bridging the gaps between law enforcement and neighborhoods was essential to public safety and crime reduction. Chief McMillin shifted the focus of his department's policing from reactive to proactive, from responsibility for arrests alone to a commitment to prevention, and from isolation to engagement.

Other CASP plan elements to date - afterschool tutoring in a church, a peace march, weekly "charlas" or "chats" among residents and CASP members - seem small.  Some, like Operation Knock Out, a local/state/federal narco-trafficking case targeting Norteño gang members, are large.  Taken together in a comprehensive plan, they have had an effect.

Lessons Learned

After less than a year of CASP's work on the Hebbron project, some themes have emerged that are important to the future of community-oriented policing and the building of essential trust:

  • The power of the police is not their power of arrest:  An effective community-oriented police officer uses this power judiciously.  An arrest can be made when it is necessary for the safety of the community.  However, law enforcement legitimacy is increased when an officer selects an alternative method of resolution.  For instance, a juvenile found in possession of drugs is lawfully subject to arrest, but the community is better served by directing a youthful offender to a drug treatment program with the threat of prosecution held as motivation to participate.  Arrest and incarceration are the last resort.
  • Police are effective conveners:  When a neighborhood issue arises, be it a blight problem or a conflict among neighbors in an apartment complex, the police have a unique ability to convene and moderate neighborhood resolutions.  Residents understand the authority and neutrality of a law enforcement officer.  When an officer learns of a problem and takes the lead in setting a meeting, inviting neighbors and moderating a discussion, it is the community who tells the officers what their desired resolution is.
  • The police can navigate the bureaucracy:  Cities have lists.  Lists of inoperable street lights, abandoned vehicles, areas needing weed and graffiti abatement.  Requests for these services can languish for weeks, even months.  However, when a police officer recognizes that fixing specific problems will result in multiple benefits (for instance, the repair of a street light will allow children to play outside in a safe environment), he or she has the ability to move those issues to the top of the list.  When residents see "their" officers attending to their neighborhoods' quality of life, the officers' legitimacy is increased.
  • Legitimacy breeds trust:  At the end of the day, a police officer's first responsibility is public safety.  While some of the topics described here do not seem critical given the overarching problem of youth firearms violence, residents are more likely to speak up, speak out and help officers they trust when those violent acts inevitably occur.

The City of Salinas, like most jurisdictions, is suffering from critical personnel shortages that make responding to basic calls for service a challenge.  To take officers off the beat and place them into the hardest hit neighborhoods to provide direct services to residents is something of a leap of faith.  Given the early results in Hebbron, police department leadership is convinced that increased trust in law enforcement and strengthened capacity of neighborhoods to stand against gangs will result in long-term, sustained reductions in violence.

Details: For more information, visit the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, NLC's Institute for Youth, Education, and Families or California Cities Gang Prevention Network websites. Also, see the U.S. Office of Community Oriented Policing Services website, the CASP website, and John Calhoun's Hope Matters website.

Kelly McMillin is Chief of Police for the City of Salinas.  John Calhoun is senior consultant to NLC's Institute for Youth, Education and Families, and director of the California Cities Gang Prevention Network.