In 2010 cities and states throughout the nation were cutting budgets to absorb the economic aftershocks rolling through Wall Street and Main Street as families lost jobs, homes and access to credit. Everyone felt the squeeze, from taxpayers to police.
Meanwhile, violent gangs that claimed four southern Monterey County cities as their home turf were proliferating. The number of gang-related drive-by shootings, assaults, murders and other crimes was rising. However, that was about to change.
The towns of Soledad, Greenfield, Gonzales and King City had applied individually for state grants before to combat gangs but had been turned down. As a result, they decided to combine forces and resources to forge a multi-city community and police partnership.
Not only did they succeed, but they’ve received every grant they’ve applied for since. The “Four Cities for Peace” effort has proven so effective in stemming gang violence that the state hails it as a model. The city of Soledad’s Strong Cities | Strong State profile
features this collaboration.
The four cities have received a total of about $1.6 million in competitive grants since 2010 through the California Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention program (CalGRIP) established in 2007 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Those funds have been matched by $1.6 million from the cities and other participating local organizations, creating a $3.2 million program.
Coordinated activities make up the core of the project. Gang suppression sweeps by law enforcement, which often result in arrests of gang members on parole and other violations, take place in one city while faith groups and community organizations hold marches in another city while passing out informational flyers.
The flyers suggest how residents can help stop gang violence, provide details on upcoming community meetings about the problem and give details on local resources available.
The four cities take turns acting as the coordinating agency on the CalGRIP grants. The Gonzales Police Department filed the first application. But the first anti-gang sweep occurred in 2011 in King City, a community of 12,000 that had four gang killings in one year.
Several dozen police officers from the four cities took part. They conducted nearly 200 pedestrian and traffic stops of gang members and searched the homes of 28 more on parole or probation, making 20 arrests.
To date, the four cities have carried out 34 regional suppression operations and/or community mobilization efforts, resulting in 247 arrests. They’ve also distributed upward of 20,000 peace flyers and engaged more than 6,000 at-risk youths, including 923 who went through a 10-week life-skills training course. In addition, six large-scale community "peace marches," eight block parties and after-school programs have been provided to 3,684 kids.
Without the state grants it is unlikely that the Four Cities for Peace campaign, now in its fifth year, would have come together, local officials say.
“For small cities like ours, it makes a huge difference because we don’t have the resources,” says Gonzales City Manager Rene Mendez. “It’s allowed us to keep gang violence in check. We still have it, but we’ve gotten guns and drugs off the street. And we’re keeping the community safe.”
While the traditional police work of gathering intelligence on gang members and their activities remains part of the effort, the program places a strong emphasis on community intervention and social programs, including special job training opportunities targeting youth at risk of becoming gang members.
“You’ll never build enough prisons and jails” to solve the gang problem, says Gonzales Police Chief Paul D. Miller. “So it’s important to reach the wannabes.”
Mendez adds that the social programs have been as important as the police work. “Maybe more important,” he says, noting that this year five school districts are involved.
Southern Monterey County is an important agricultural region. But the area also hosts two major prisons, Salinas Valley State and Soledad prisons.
The Norteños gang was founded in Soledad Prison in1968, along with Nuestra Familia. The Nuestra Familia is the northern rival to the Mexican Mafia, described by law enforcement as “the supreme Sureño gang in California.”
The Norteño Street Gang has had a foothold in Gonzales for almost as long as Miller has been a member of its Police Department — 30 years. Not surprisingly, the majority of the city’s gang crimes and contacts involve juveniles.
There are 16 youth gangs in the county among the 71 gangs that law enforcement counts, including the two major prison gangs. The gangs have as many as 5,000 certified or “affiliated” members in Monterey County.
In 2009-10 the county reported more youth homicides per capita than any other county with a population of at least 25,000 or more. The state has declared it a “High Intensity Gang Area.” In 2012 there were five murders in Soledad, five in Greenfield and three in King City. Eleven of the 13 homicides were gang-related.
Still, the cities are reporting significant progress. Gang-related deaths decreased by 63 percent in the program’s first two years.
“We have seen a dramatic decrease in the gang violence that was plaguing us,” says Chief Miller. “There’s a much greater sense of security in the communities.”
Coordination between police departments is largely the reason.
Miller says that if King City, for example, has a gang-related shooting and asks for extra patrols, an additional 25 officers (paid with CalGRIP funds) are quickly dispatched from Gonzales and the other participating cities.
That’s a significant advantage, especially for cities dealing with shrinking workforces. Greenfield and Soledad have seen their police departments shrink from a combined total of 40 to 27 people since 2010. They now share a police chief.
It’s doubtful the Four Cities for Peace project would have taken on such a life of its own without the CalGRIP funds. Twenty organizations have taken part in the effort, notes Soledad’s Project Coordinator Mark Hartunian.
Among the organizations participating in prevention activities are the South Monterey County Clergy Council, South County YMCA, Silver Star Resource Center, and local school districts. On the intervention side, the participants have included Social Outreach Services, South Monterey County Clergy Council, South County YMCA, and Rancho Cielo, Sun Street Centers and Silver Star Resource Center.
This year, he notes, the Four Cities for Peace project was presented as a model for other CalGRIP recipients attending the annual Governor’s Office of Gang and Youth Violence Policy and CalEMA training symposium.
“The fact that four small agricultural communities with no resource base could get to this point is absolutely magnificent,” says Hartunian. “What they did was inventive and impressive — a genuine collaborative effort.”