SALINAS, Calif.- The homicide rate in 2013 was at the heels of Salinas’ worse record of murders, which occurred in 2009. With homicides on the rise again since 2012, the Salinas Police Department is taking a stand.
Implementing a more comprehensive and updated strategy first used in 2010-2011 that showed success with a decrease in violent incidents.
Known as Group Violent Reduction Strategy, the idea is to make this standard operating procedure, not just a program with a start and end.
In 2009, Salinas saw the deadliest year in the city's history, 29 murders, all gang- related. That put Salinas at four times the national average for homicides per capita.
It was at that point, with the public's fear at it's highest, that community leaders started looking for more solutions than just catching the bad guys and locking them up.
“I think it's very easy for people to think of a gang member and say we will just throw him in prison and we will be done with him, but the reality is when you throw a gang member in prison you aren't done with him because that gang member is eventually going to get out,” said Chief Kelly McMillin of the Salinas Police Department.
As a result, Salinas looked to a program known as Ceasefire, created to fight major gang problems, but the big difference is the message to gang members.
“It's a combination of very strong enforcement towards the most violent groups in Salinas while at the same time trying to offer young men who go towards violence an opportunity to get out of that,” said McMillin.
Shootings in Salinas fell from 151 in 2009 to 131 in 2010. They dropped even further in 2011 to 49. In addition, homicides dropped from 29 in 2009 to 20 in 2010 to 12 in 2011. However, in 2012 Salinas saw the murder rate start to spike again with 18 homicides. It's around that time that money spent toward this layered approach to stopping gang violence started to dry up. In fact, police lost a full-time police sergeant program manager, full-time crime analyst, and all school resource officers. The Violence Suppression Unit and Undercover Narcotics were cut almost in half.
Stockton Police Department also had major cuts but remained an advocate for the Group Violence Reduction Strategy. The strategy is highly reliant on relationships between law enforcement, community and faith based outreach and service providers. Those partnerships are used to send a serious message to violent groups.
“The first step is they put their guns down. There's no compromise on that. We know what you do. We know how you're group works. We know you are doing the shooting. It’s not acceptable, put your guns down,” said Ralph Womack, a 32-year police veteran and now a manager of the Ceasefire program in Stockton.
Womack said at one time, even when Stockton’s gang violence was going through the roof, he didn’t buy the strategy.
“Initially I was skeptical because pretty much like most officers, they will tell you they come on the job looking to do enforcement so it was a cultural change,” said Womack.
But Ralph says he's seen it work firsthand.
“Well oftentimes people will look at what you are doing like what the costs are, but another way to look at it is it's an investment in the future so if you look at the research that has been done on the cost of homicides to the community and to family in general, it's millions of dollars. So if you look at it in terms of that it’s really an inexpensive investment to do it at the front end. I became a believer,” said Womack.
Stockton Police Department made a promise to focus on violent crimes. A year later, homicides dropped by nearly half.
“Well it's about people, to do this work it takes people and people are always going to be the most expensive resource that you have,” said Womack.
The challenge is finding a way to continue this Group Violent Reduction Strategy.
“When you have a program there's a start to it and then a finish, if you look at grant applications they normally say you have to start on a certain date and you have to do some things and then spit out a result at the end, but when you are talking about human relations, you are talking about changing peoples' lives. You can't approach it like you are going to have a finish,” said Womack.
Changing gangsters habits isn't cheap. Stockton Police Department says sitting down with gang members costs about $1000 per call-in. Also Salinas’ under cover operations like operation Knockout and Snake Eyes are labor and cost intensive.
“Those operations because they require a whole lot of police officers working around the clock for months on end you run into hundreds of thousands of dollars of cost,” said McMillin.
Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin says the strategy has to selfsustain.
“We become very reliant on state and federal partners: the California Highway Patrol, FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco, Monterey County Sheriff’s Department, and Drug Enforcement Agency, all these agencies have been really helping Salinas when we needed help, but they have their own jobs to do they cannot permanently supplant the Salinas Police Department,that has to be our responsibility,” said McMillin.
Chief McMillin estimates it will cost $75,000 per year to operate, but it will take more money to get it off the ground.
“It becomes the way that we do enforcement, but until we are up and running, and have our processes in place, it does need a separate source of funding,” said McMillin.
The Salinas Police Department just received a two-year grant that commits to $207,000 to pay for travel and expenses for people to train Salinas police and community members for the Group Violence Reduction Strategy.In addition, he will need a full-time crime analyst and that salary is close to $67,000.