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A Community Response to Street Gangs in Santa Cruz


La Vida Local

by Neal Aronson, Special to
SANTA CRUZ (May 2010) - For far too long, we as a a society have tolerated gangs, perhaps because we didn't consider it to be our problem. It was always "those people" killing each other "over there". We felt sorry for Salinas and Watsonville and were glad we didn't have their problems. There have been incidents in Beach Flats and Lower Ocean St., but they felt like isolated events, and it wasn't our children being attacked. Even though they took place in Santa Cruz, they weren't happening in our neighborhoods.
Times have changed. In the last year two young men were murdered in our neighborhoods and a young man, the son of my friend and neighbor, was wounded while walking his dog on the west side. People are taking notice and are filled with outrage and fear. How could this happen here? While we were naively thinking this was someone else's problem, the gangs have been growing more brazen and are now claiming our streets as their territory.
Some blame the city council. They claim they are too busy banning smoking on the beaches or weighing in on national politics, and not focusing on our real problems. But really, what can they do? After the anarchist vandalism downtown they authorized more money for the police department even though they don't know where the funds will come from.
The police have been busy investigating the crimes and have had some success working with area departments making mass arrests. They have recently teamed up with Federal agencies hoping to gain the upper hand. One of their more effective tools, neighborhood policing, has been severely hampered by budget cuts and vacant positions. Even when fully staffed their numbers are just sufficient for day to day policing and must rely on mutual aid to deal with extraordinary situations. Their investigations are often hampered by the lack of witnesses who are willing to speak with the authorities.
So, what do we do? There are no simple solutions. Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman would have us believe that most of our problems stem from illegal immigrants. If we send them all home the economy will recover and our streets will be safe once more. Others believe that we need to educate young people about the dangerous realities of gang life. If we give them safe places to hang out and constructive activities they'll make good choices.
Maybe so, but, like many of us, I want to see swift, decisive action that will stop these guys in their tracks. Education and safe activities may help in the future, but we have an immediate problem that needs to be solved without delay.
Ultimately, the responsibility is ours. We must learn to be vigilant - not vigilante (visions of Charles Bronson in Death Wish). If there are suspicious people cruising through our neighborhoods we need to alert the police immediately. If our neighborhood park no longer feels safe let the authorities know. Let's learn to be good witnesses - take down license numbers, write down descriptions of cars and their occupants, take pictures.
We need to do everything we can safely do to help the police do their jobs. For their part, the police need to respond immediately to our calls. Their presence alone will force the would-be perpetrators to move on before they can cause trouble. And they will know in no uncertain terms that they are being watched by neighbors willing to take a stand.
I'm not suggesting we practice ethnic profiling by reporting every car full of Latino youths that cruise our streets. Deputy Chief Martinez recently stated that gang members can include whites and African Americans, as well as Hispanics. Justice is supposed to be color-blind and we, in our vigilance, should be, too. We cannot fail to act out of a need to appear politically correct. Most of us can tell the difference between someone minding their own business and someone up to no good, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
If we are wrong, well, please accept our apology. If we are right it might just save a life. It's worth the risk. Let's not forget that it was an observant street vendor who alerted police to the presence of a car bomb in Times Square recently. Had he not been paying attention or felt his observation wasn't worth reporting, many people could have been killed or injured.
There is also a place for pragmatic education. We need to be educated about what to look for, how to recognize potential gangsters, what information to gather and how to present it to the police. We need to learn what to look for in our kids, what behaviors and clothing will get them in trouble. Our kids need to be taught the best way to respond when asked about their "affiliations". They need to learn from the experts how to react when confronted by gangsters - what works and what doesn't.
And if they don't know it already, they need to be taught how serious this is. They need to be taught to swallow their pride, ignore the rush of adrenaline and testosterone and just walk away. Walk away and call 911.
This is our city and these are our neighborhoods. We need to take responsibility for keeping them safe and livable. We have a right to demand support from the City and the police, but the responsibility is ours. The City Council can pass ordinances and approve budgets, and the police can make arrests, but they are powerless without our help.  
Neal Aronson is a resident of Santa Cruz's formerly peaceful west side. He retired from the Santa Cruz City Fire Department after twenty years of proudly serving his community. For most of that time he was active in the firefighter's union, culminating in several years as the union local's president. He currently spends his time trying to make furniture and play jazz. As his employee appraisals were known to point out, "Neal is not afraid to express his opinion".