Thursday, December 13, 2012
Salinas Police Officer Richard Lopez watches as a tall teenage boy with a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes slinks toward the street, taking drags from a cigarette.
The teen, halfway across the neighborhood park now, looks familiar. The cop digs into his pants pocket for the paper he carries whenever he’s in the Hebbron area of East Salinas, and quickly scans it.
He grins, recognizing a photo.
“What’s up man?” Lopez calls out the window of his police car as the figure draws close.
The teen, wearing a black jacket and black pants, looks up.
“Hey, Lopez!” he says with a lopsided smile, stopping a few feet from the car. “What are you doing around here? I seen you coming around.”
“Just hanging out,” Lopez replies.
“What you doing around here?” the kid persists.
“Just hanging out,” the cop repeats. “Not drinking today?”
“Nah, just smoking,” says the teen, cigarette in hand.
Lopez looks at him skeptically.
“I’m 18, man.”
The cop launches into a round of friendly small talk, and the teen dutifully replies. The two pause for a moment to ponder a universal problem – the fickle nature of women.
Dating is expensive. Lopez suggests the teen take his girl to a fast food joint because the food’s cheaper. It’s a good idea, the kid thinks – he’s got the McDonald’s app on his phone and can score free burgers.
Then the teen walks off to meet some friends in the park.
“I knew I recognized him from somewhere,” Lopez says, after the kid leaves. “Know your local gang member.”
• • •
That’s a key part of a new tactic in this part of East Salinas. Know your local gang members.
Lopez is one half of a two-man team that patrols the Hebbron, a roughly 20-square-block, primarily Hispanic area cut in half by North Hebbron Avenue.
Trying to reduce violence and tame the city’s gang problem is not a new effort. But this approach certainly is. These cops aren’t there to slap on cuffs – they’re there to slap backs and build relationships.
Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin, who landed the top spot in June after more than 20 years with the department, calls it community policing.
“It’s not about enforcement,” McMillin says. “They’re police officers, obviously they have the ability to enforce the law, but their primary role is to support the community out there, and it means a whole lot more than arresting people.”
That much is evident when Lopez, an amiable 39-year-old man with a gleaming bald head and a hawkish nose, walks the beat. On his rounds he waves “Hola!” with a smile, and often earns one in return.
He carries pamphlets in Spanish and English with hotline numbers and contact information for community organizations like Silver Star Resource Center and Salinas Adult School-Parent Center and stops to talk to residents about their latest concerns. One woman is worried about walking around alone late at night, so he shows her how to use her keys as a weapon. Others wanted a speed bump installed to prevent unsafe driving around their children; Lopez dutifully records and relays their request.
In the face of record gang violence, distributing helpful pamphlets and sharing neighborly conversation can seem like a humble ambition. But something potentially profound is happening along the way. Neighborhood perceptions of the police are changing. When residents call the police department – already an accomplishment for a community long scared or suspicious of collaborating with cops – some ask for their friendly street cops by name.
“That’s a humongous deal,” says Lopez. “At the end of the day, when we go home they’re still left behind living there. Sometimes their neighbors might be the exact criminals we’re looking for.”
Lopez even gives out his cell phone number. He gets two to three calls on his cell a week, covering everything from how to refer a gang member to counseling and job training services to questions on evicting a relative who has overstayed her welcome.
“When something really bad happens out there, Rich is the guy who goes,” McMillin says. “Because he knows people out there, he can get a lot more information in a lot more detail, a lot faster.”
The community policing project started just over a year ago, when Lopez and his partner, Jeffrey Lofton, were assigned as “CASP” officers to the area.
CASP, started in 2009, is the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace, a group of government agencies and nonprofits that have teamed up to reduce gang violence and improve safety.
“YOU LOOK FOR THE CHICKENSHIT CRIMES THAT LEAD TO THE BIGGER CRIMES.”
In 2010 Monterey County had the highest youth homicide rate in California, and of the 5,000 gang members in the county, 3,000 reside in Salinas. Though the average age for joining a gang is 12 to 14 years old, officials believe that age might even be younger in Salinas, given the city’s gang-entrenched culture. Monterey County police have pictures of gang members dressing their children or younger siblings in the colors and paraphernalia of their gangs.
While the community policing approach is not a new idea, it hasn’t been practiced much in Salinas.
The Salinas Police Department doesn’t have the cops or funds to meet all the community’s needs, Chief McMillin says. Setting aside two officers for one relatively tiny area is a big investment. There are only 149 officers on the force, when they could staff at least 100 more, Lopez says.
McMillin thinks the last time Salinas put on a community policing effort was likely 20 years ago, when it had federal grants to cover the expenses.
Originally the plan was to have four officers on the beat so the neighborhood would be covered every day. But limited resources only allowed for two, who would take the beat most of the week. So Hebbron got Lopez and Lofton.
Soon though, Lopez thinks, the CASP team may be down to just one for a while. His partner will be retiring, and there don’t look to be any new hires on the way.
• • •
La Paz Park – the Peace Park – is a grassy patch of land stocked with shiny playground equipment and bordered by low-income housing developed by the Salinas-based nonprofit CHISPA. The park doesn’t always transmit serenity. The park’s tables, where families picnic, are marked with gang symbols scratched unevenly into the hard tops.
Lopez patrols here often, at the behest of the community. The gang members who hang out here are no longer strangers to him. He likens it to a school setting: “Who does the principal at the school know? Those are the bad kids.”
The CASP team has a “carrot-and-stick” approach in dealing with young gangsters, or kids teetering on the edge of gang life. Lopez will give gang members the option of an out: a way to get a job or to volunteer, a hook-up with a nonprofit that helps troubled youth. That, or they get the stick: an arrest and a record if they’re caught doing something wrong, even if it’s something minor like loitering or trespassing.
The paper in his pocket helps. The names, mugshots, birthdays, and addresses of people allow him to keep an eye on known gang members and trouble makers that make the Hebbron a particularly violent part of the city. In 2009 there were 29 murders in Salinas, five of which were inside the CASP officer’s patrol zone. In 2012 there have been 20 murders, three in the zone. And as of the end of September, there had been 67 violent crimes in the Hebbron, including assault and domestic violence.
Lopez carries a batch of police department stickers in his breast pocket and has a fluffy brown and white stuffed dog named Casper – after CASP – dangling from the ceiling of his patrol car. The New York City native, born to Colombian parents, speaks Spanish – a vital skill in the Hebbron, where many of the nearly 5,000 residents speak the language. Usually he patrols on foot or on his bicycle, but on a recent trip into the area, he gave two reporters a tour in his patrol car.
Not too long ago Lofton, his partner, was relegated to desk duty after injuring his back, so Lopez has been making the rounds alone.
On the drive, Lopez pointed out this gang-affiliated house, that gang-affiliated park. There’s a spot just a few blocks from the officers’ Hebbron HQ where a 15-year-old gang member was shot and killed in March. A few months later, at the same spot, another murder. As far as the police can tell, the 25-year-old victim in that shooting was not in a gang, nor was he considered an affiliate.
The cops have set up shop in the Hebbron Family Center off North Hebbron Avenue. Their office, a small room in a complex that offers activities from karate lessons to after-school activities for teens, is decorated with hand-drawn posters from elementary school students.
“Officer Lopez U Rock,” reads one.
Before the CASP cops showed up, there was no easily accessible police station in the area. The cops are showing residents they’re in the thick of it, too.
“If there’s a drive-by shooting, we could be victims as well,” Lopez says.
• • •
In forming its plan to combat gang violence, the police pulled from other cities’ violence reduction efforts.
In Chicago, there’s CeaseFire – now known as Cure Violence – a program that has spread to a dozen U.S. cities. Salinas has its own CeaseFire program, but it has been put on hold pending funding and additional resources. The city also looked at C3, or Counter Criminal Continuum Policing, which is being implemented in Springfield, Mass., a city with demographics similar to those of Salinas. C3 uses military counterinsurgency tactics to “degrade” and “dismantle” gangs.
On the whole, though, Salinas says its effort is unique.
Whereas CeaseFire would “call in” gang members, or summon them to a central location like a church, to offer them help, Lopez and Lofton knock on individual doors. They sit down with families, tell them their kid may be in trouble, and ask them what they can do to help. Then, if the family is willing, they refer them to an appropriate CASP partner, like a school counselor, or to a nonprofit like Rancho Cielo, which provides programs like culinary classes to at-risk youth.
One partner, Sun Street Centers, a life skills and substance-abuse counseling nonprofit, has received about a dozen referrals from the police officers since the beginning of the project. Prior to the Hebbron project, there were no referrals from the police, Sun Street CEO Anna Foglia says. Referrals from government agencies would usually come after someone was already in trouble or had been arrested.
“Before, everyone was working in their silos,” she says. “Prevention and treatment and law enforcement were all working separately.”
With the citywide CASP partnership, and the finer concentration on the Hebbron, there also can be a focus on prevention. These are the types of referrals Foglia has been getting from the cops.
Police are now looking for environmental and domestic elements – like drug or alcohol abuse in the family – that could be contributing to a kid’s troubles. They key in on family members as well as the kids themselves.
“It’s been a great relationship with us and the police department,” she says. “Better for them to prevent crime rather than address more and more crime.”
• • •
At La Paz Park, a boy in a black T-shirt and high socks idles up to Lopez’s car. His mouth is sticky from the Taco Bell slushie he’s been sucking down. The spiky-haired boy and his buddies, who look to be late elementary school age, noticed Lopez driving past the park playground and come to greet him.
“Where are your brothers?” Lopez asks.
“They ain’t here no more,” the boy says.
The older brothers, Lopez says later, are gang members. That’s how he knows these kids.
The park is relatively quiet, and there are no gangsters in sight.
“You wanna know why no one’s coming out?” the boy asks.
“Cuz they’re playing Black Ops 2,” the boy says.
Lopez gives this a thought.
“So you think all the solutions to gang problems is give everyone Black Ops?” Lopez asks.
“I don’t even know why,” the boy says.
“You just solved all the problems in the world,” Lopez says. “Give all the kids video games.”
Kids seem to gravitate to the cop. He has a certain rapport with them, built on his exuberant personality and – for the younger ones – his endless supply of stickers. Lopez tells the boys about an incident some time ago when he had to shoot his gun to scare off an aggressive German shepherd. They begged him to show them the scene, and he obliged, leading them across the street on a hunt for a chipped piece of sidewalk where his bullet might have landed.
Being a positive role model and giving the occasional pep talk is a big part of Lopez’s job. He hopes it inspires the younger ones to consider options for life they might not have otherwise.
“WHILE THE COMMUNITY POLICING APPROACH IS NOT A NEW ONE, IT HASN’T BEEN MUCH PRACTICED IN SALINAS EITHER. IT COMES DOWN TO A MATTER OF RESOURCES.”
“This is what I spend a lot of my days doing,” Lopez says. “A lot of socializing, a lot of stopping, and a lot of talking. What we do is try to develop that relationship so later on they help us out.”
• • •
Leora Trafton is worried about prostitutes.
The 52-year-old Hebbron resident stops to chat with Lopez as he drives past her house.
“This guy’s a real respectful person. And his partner too,” she says.
She tells the Lopez there’s been a rise in prostitution in the neighborhood. Sometimes, peeking out her window, she sees men dressed as women: “I have to rub my eyes. Am I asleep?”
Trafton has no qualms about airing her thoughts to the police.
“It’s not like you’re ratting out on somebody,” she says. “You’re a concerned citizen and you’re getting stuff done.”
One question to think about, says policing and criminal justice expert University of Nebraska professor Sam Walker, is whether the officers’ enforcement power undermines their mission to connect with people. Does it affect their trustworthiness if the officers are also making arrests?
Officials say Lopez and Lofton’s mission is not to make arrests. But, as Lopez says, it’s useful to get kids into the system. It’s the same reason police pull people over for minor traffic violations, like a broken headlight.
“You look for the chickenshit crimes that lead to the bigger crimes,” he says.
Trafton seems to agree.
“It’s like… ” she slaps her wrist. “Until they buckle up harder – the kids under 18 – you ain’t gonna solve crime,” she says.
Other residents have a more nuanced view.
Maria Miranda, president of community group Poder Popular, says while she feels safer with the cops around, their presence hasn’t seemed to change much. Just recently, somebody bashed in windows of the cars lining her street, she says. And, she says, police have been known to intimidate youngsters.
She takes pride in the community’s own efforts in renewing itself. It was Poder Popular who raised enough money to clean up La Paz Park, once a wasteland of used condoms, syringes and prostitution.
The way forward, says Ted Rico, who directs the Poder Popular program out of the Center for Community Advocacy, is the partnership between the community and police he thinks is now developing.
“The police need the residents as much as the residents need the police,” he says.
Harder evidence of efficacy is still lacking though. Are the referrals effective? Does the community trust the police? Is crime really being affected? Anecdotally, officials believe the program is on the right track. But where’s the evidence?
The answer is on its way.
In November, the Salinas Police accepted a nearly $125,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant to perform a comprehensive evaluation on the impact of its city-wide violence reduction plan, which includes the policing effort.
The evaluation will be led by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. City officials are yet unsure how long the evaluation will take, but the goal is to begin the process of updating the violence plan next year.
Lopez says an outside observer will offer valuable insight into both the successes and failures of the Hebbron project. Then police can tweak their approach, and even take their services to other parts of the city.
“I’m looking for peace in the neighborhood,” he says.
In the meantime, stories of success and failure remain anecdotal, and interpersonal.
Lopez wheels up to the Hebbron Family Center and a group of high school students get off the school bus and form a circle.
They greet the officer, who steps out of his car to talk. A middle school kid without a helmet zips past the crew on his bike.
“Wear your helmet!” Lopez yells.
“I don’t need a helmet,” the boy retorts, speeding away.
“I know you don’t,” calls Lopez. “Nothing in there right now.”
The high schooler students are talking about the day’s career fair, where they had mock interviews with real employers.
A boy in a leather jacket enthusiastically tells the officer his interview with a company had gone well, and he’d been offered a job. The the day before, the teen sought interview advice from Lopez.
Another girl, smartly dressed in black, is upset because a Marine recruiter told her she wouldn’t be fit for service because of a prior injury.
He told her she was “broken,” she says.
“Don’t let somebody like that put you down,” Lopez says. “There’s always going to be people that are haters.”
He encourages her to keep her spirits up, perhaps to look for different recruiters. A tidbit of insight – perhaps one less easily ignored than putting on a helmet.