Fighting Crime With Community

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    On a bench adjacent to the community center of the Grandview apartments roses, palm fronds and candles have been left, serving as a memorial for Carl Reimer. Photo by Kathryn Power.
    On a bench adjacent to the community center of the Grandview apartments roses, palm fronds and candles have been left, serving as a memorial for Carl Reimer. Photo by Kathryn Power.
    evergreen cemetery is one of many locations in Santa Cruz county where Take Back Santa Cruz has orchestrated positive loitering and cleanup events. Photo by Kathryn Power.
    Evergreen Cemetery is one of many locations in Santa Cruz county where Take Back Santa Cruz has orchestrated positive loitering and cleanup events. Photo by Kathryn Power.
    Tyler Tenerio’s memory lives on in bumper stickers reading “Never Forget Tyler Tenorio,” which can be found all over Santa Cruz. Photo by Kathryn Power.
    Tyler Tenerio’s memory lives on in bumper stickers reading “Never Forget Tyler Tenorio,” which can be found all over Santa Cruz. Photo by Kathryn Power.

    “We’re not going to solve this problem purely with arrests. It takes a community, it takes families and it takes individuals stepping up to address this issue.”

    -Vice Mayor Ryan Coonerty

    One liked to draw and skateboard, while the other was passionate about surfing and studying spirituality, in particular the Rastafarian religion. They both attended Santa Cruz High School, where they maintained a close friendship despite the three-year age difference.

    Tyler Tenorio and Carl Reimer crossed paths both in life and death, as both teenagers — ages 16 and 19, respectively — were murdered in a six-month span at the hands of alleged gang members in Santa Cruz. Tenorio was stabbed and beaten to death on October 16, 2009 near the 7-Eleven on Laurel Street after his group of friends exchanged words with a group of gang members, while Reimer was shot at a park near the Mission Gardens Apartments this past Saturday night after going to retrieve a skateboard and bike that he and his friend had left there earlier.

    But this problem is bigger than the tragedy of these two teenagers, as these incidences are just two examples of the increasing prevalence of gang activity in the county which has sparked community outrage and action on the part of individuals, local law enforcement agencies, and activist groups.

    Gang Activity On the Rise

    Rudy Escalante knows all too well about the criminality of local gangs, both from his 24-year tenure with the Santa Cruz Police Department and his current position as the deputy chief at the Watsonville Police Department. In Watsonville, he saw gang crime rise 41 percent between 2008 and 2009 and gang-motivated aggravated assaults increase 21 percent.

    While Watsonville has not had any homicides in 2010, Santa Cruz has dealt with four, three of which were gang related. This total matches the total number of murders for all of 2009, three of which also had gang ties.

    The records management of the Santa Cruz Police Department can’t access similar specific statistical information related to gang activity in Watsonville. Santa Cruz Police Department spokesman Zach Friend says they don’t keep such statistics in their computer system. But a perceived increase in gang activity led the agency to form a gang task force within the department a little over a year ago.

    “What we noticed is an increase in overall gang activity and high-profile gang incidents, meaning numbers aside, the brazenness of what gang members have been willing to do over the last few years has increased,” Friend said. “We’ve had public stabbings [and] midday shootings … and because of that we felt the need to create a team dedicated to that.”

    The past two weeks alone have shown the growing issue of gang violence in Santa Cruz. Aside from the homicide investigation of 19-year-old Carl Reimer, there was an attempted homicide of a man walking his dog on Woodrow Avenue on April 17 who was approached by four to five gang members and shot. The victim said he did not have any gang affiliation.

    Clarkie, who goes only by her first name, leads the Garfield Park Neighborhood Watch and is an active member of Take Back Santa Cruz, an organization dedicated to community safety. She expressed dissatisfaction with the SCPD for what she calls a lack of response to the increase in gang crime.

    “I am disappointed in the police response to crime — we see things they don’t, apparently,” Clarkie said. “They have diverted funding for our neighborhood watch program and community service officer, and our neighborhoods are suffering badly as a result.”

    The Santa Cruz Police Department has faced cutbacks over the past 10 years. The department has 87 officers, down from a peak of 104 in 2000. Also, according to a February press release from SCPD, the department received a record number of 85,774 calls, up 9 percent from the previous year and up 25 percent from 2006.

    Friend added that the key aspect of much of the gang-related crime that occurs within the boundaries of Santa Cruz is caused by non-residents.

    “People are coming here to commit a crime or retaliate for crime that was committed, [which] shows that this problem cannot be localized or controlled by any jurisdiction,” Friend said. “It requires every city to recognize [that] gangs are a problem and that this needs to be prioritized.”

    The Culture of Gangs

    Although gang activity — and a public awareness of it — has grown in recent years in Santa Cruz County, gangs are not new to the area, Escalante said.

    “Gangs have been here for a long time … they’ve been in existence for [the] 25 years that I’ve been in law enforcement and prior to that. They all have the potential to be extremely violent,” Escalante said.

    According to Escalante, there are approximately 600 known gang members and their associates in Watsonville whose ages range from the early teens to the mid-twenties. As in Santa Cruz and many other locations throughout the country, they can be separated into two main factions, the Norteños and Sereños, which are then divided into different subsets depending on the city.

    Escalante says there are a variety of reasons that a person decides to join a gang that depend on several different factors.

    “For some people it’s a family tradition where you’ve got members of a family and the gang tradition has been passed down,” Escalante said.

    He added that other common reasons for joining a street gang include a yearning to gain acceptance or seek attention that one may not receive in their home or school environment.

    SCPD spokesperson Friend says that the recruitment efforts of gangs have been successful over the past decade, particularly with youth.

    “Numbers aren’t decreasing and in response we’re taking an early intervention approach,” Friend said. “Realistically, by the time police get in contact with a gang member, there have been a lot of failures along the way at the educational level, family level, social program level. … Kids are joining gangs earlier and earlier and these are issues that as an agency of less than a hundred we can’t address alone.”

    Preventative Medicine: Educating Adolescents

    Santa Cruz County law enforcement agencies and community organizations are doing their best to find an answer. They want to increase awareness about the growing prevalence of gang activity by focusing their efforts on the members of the population who are most susceptible to join a gang — preteens and young adults.

    “Middle school is pivotal because kids haven’t made up their minds yet — they’re being influenced by who they’re living with and hanging out with, but they’re still on the border,” said Mission Hill Middle School Principal Valerie Quandt.

    Out of this sense of urgency to intervene with high-risk youth came the development of the Personally Responsible Individual Development in Ethics (PRIDE) program, spearheaded by SCPD Detective Joe Hernandez, who adapted it from a similar program in Los Angeles.

    The 10-week program, which is set to start in May, will cater to 10 total students from Mission Hill Middle School and Branciforte Middle School who have been deemed at “high risk” for joining gangs by the police department and school administrators.

    “We had two parent information nights here, and from there families needed to fill out an application and go through an interview process,” explained Branciforte Middle School Principal Kris Munro. “Students who participate will be given adult mentors from the community and will do different kinds of activities as a part of that program with a focus on the impact of negative and positive choices in their life.”

    The activities for these students will range from showing the consequences of bad decision-making by visiting a state prison and morgue to meeting positive members of the community, such as local elected officials and professional baseball players from the San Francisco Giants. Parents of the children involved in PRIDE will also take classes and receive information on how to keep their kids out of gangs.

    Despite the increase in gang-related crime in Watsonville last year, the city has found success with a youth prevention and education program. In the program, a gang prevention team with the Watsonville Police Department works with at-risk youth to discourage them from taking part in gang activity. At a Watsonville City Council meeting in January, they reported that out of the 61 adolescents who most recently finished the program, none of them had new gang offenses.

    Friend hopes that the PRIDE program will have similar results in Santa Cruz to the Watsonville counterpart and its Los Angeles predecessor, where students who participated in the program improved their attendance rates, test scores and overall behavioral issues.

    “We’re hoping this first program will be successful,” Friend said. “It’s definitely eye-opening to see how young kids are falling into the traps of gangs and how early they’re being recruited, which is why we’re going all the way into middle school age.”

    Meanwhile, Principal Quandt would like to see the PRIDE program show students that gangs are no laughing matter.

    “I want these high-risk students to realize this is serious business and not just a game, as is evident by what’s happening in town right now,” Quandt said.

    Community Steps In

    Several Santa Cruz residents have also been spurred to action to combat crime in the community.

    One such person is Helbard Alkhassadeh, who has lived in Santa Cruz since 1993 and works as a product photographer. In September 2008 he launched the website StabSantaCruz.com, which tracks the number of stabbing incidents in Santa Cruz County and posts information for the public.

    Some may call Alkhassadeh’s website crass. He concedes some have accused him of “glorifying” stabbing on his website, which features a “stab-o-meter,” a merchandise section, and a section entitled “The Shanked,” which lists famous people who died as a result of a stabbing.

    But Alkhassadeh says the premise of his website is simple — to educate the public with the hope of reducing the number of stabbings, which last year totaled 71 (an average of 1.5 per week) and is already at 20 so far in 2010.

    “Last year we had 71 stabbings and this year we want to be under that … the goal is to make the site go away,” Alkhassadeh said.

    He added that although he believes the “majority” of stabbings are gang-related, his goal is to reduce all such acts of violent criminality in the city of Santa Cruz, gang-related or not.

    “I’m an equal opportunity stabbing reducer,” Alkassadeh said. “I don’t care if it’s a gang who does it, I’m saying there’s got to be a way of educating the population on how to resolve conflict. You can walk away — there’s no reason for someone to drive a sharp piece of metal into someone’s torso.”

    The site keeps the community informed. Such statistics, which he gatherers from information in local newspapers, are not kept by the Santa Cruz Police Department or the county Sheriff’s office.

    Alkassadeh’s Stab Santa Cruz website isn’t the only local community activist group that started with the Internet, however.

    Santa Cruz resident Analicia Cube founded the organization Take Back Santa Cruz on October 31 of last year with the creation of a Facebook group that now has over 3,200 members.

    Since their formation six months ago, the group has held events such as Take Back Tuesdays, which encourage people to go downtown on Tuesday evenings to “fill this space with positive vibes,” Cube said. They also hold Positive Loitering gatherings that ask Santa Cruz residents to step away from their computer and TV sets and come outside to talk to their neighbors.

    “A great way to empower a neighborhood is to get to know your neighbors, so if something doesn’t seem right you feel comfortable contacting people,” Cube said.

    Vice Mayor Ryan Coonerty lauds the work of community organizations and individuals and says their efforts are essential to the fight against crime in Santa Cruz.

    “We’re not going to solve this problem purely with arrests,” Coonerty said. “It takes a community, it takes families and it takes individuals stepping up to address this issue.”

    The Future of Fighting Gang Crimes

    Law enforcement members and Santa Cruz citizens alike have long-term goals and plans in mind to continue their efforts in fighting gang activity in the community.

    Helbard Alkassadeh is launching the newest feature of his website StabSantaCruz.com just in time for Memorial Day weekend. Called “Operation Snitch,” it works in conjunction with the SCPD to provide a 24/7 online live dispatch feed for the public of the calls that police offers get from the 911 call center. The premise of “Operation Snitch” is to enable citizens to be additional eyes and ears for the police department and be witnesses to crimes that occur before the police can arrive on the scene, Alkassadeh said.

    “I can’t think of any other police department that I have as much respect for as the Santa Cruz Police Department,” Alkassadeh said. “They can’t stop stabbings because they don’t know when it’s going to happen, [so] we’re here to utilize them to tell them when it happens. We need to be the ones to stop crime.”

    Watsonville Deputy Chief Rudy Escalante emphasized not only the importance of continued collaboration between community members and the police department in Watsonville, but also between neighboring law enforcement agencies such as the SCPD.

    “You’d be amazed at how critical the sharing of information is,” Escalante said. “We find that people from Watsonville come to Santa Cruz to commit criminal activity and vice versa … So for law enforcement it’s cost-effective and advantageous to work together and collaborate not only when doing enforcement efforts, but also education efforts.”

    Besides continuing to keep all local law enforcement agencies informed about gang activity that occurs within the county, the Santa Cruz Police Department will continue gang suppression operations which are aimed at contacting and arresting gang members. The last such operation was held on April 15 and led to the arrest of four gang members on charges ranging from DUI and narcotics possession to outstanding warrants.

    They will also continue with a pilot program launched in November. Called the Neighborhood Empowerment Initiative, it encourages face-to-face contact between the police department and Santa Cruz residents by having bilingual officers go door-to-door providing crime information and resources to neighbors.

    Meanwhile, although Take Back Santa Cruz President Analicia Cube says that there are action plans in the works for upcoming clean-ups and similar events, she is well aware of the fact that Santa Cruz will not reach its ideal status right away and will continue her efforts to combat gang violence in the community.

    “I love this town and we’re not leaving — we’re going to keep fighting and keep pushing for however long it takes,” Cube said, her voice exuding a firm passion which crackled through the phone lines like electricity. “I’m prepared for the long-haul and prepared to be doing this for the rest of my life.”

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    Take Back Santa Cruz will be having a Positive Loitering event this Friday, April 30, in the wake of the homicide of 19-year-old Carl Reimer. It will be held at Grandview Park, 90 Grandview Street, Santa Cruz from 7 to 8 p.m.