Since January, Sacramento County sheriff's officials have been assembling an anti-gang force unlike anything ever seen in this region.
Funded by $11 million in federal money, the 31-member "Impact Division" has an ambitious but clear goal: to reduce violent crime often driven by gang members across the region. The new division is a rare venture, both in size and scope: a three-pronged strategy of enforcement, prevention and intelligence.
"It's one of those things that a lot of places say they're doing," said Bernard Melekian, director of the U.S. Department of Justice's COPS Office, which awarded the grant. "My impression is Sacramento County actually appears to be trying to do that."
Law enforcement authorities estimate there are 300 gangs in Sacramento County, encompassing 10,000 or more members.
Les Simmons, a pastor at the South Sacramento Christian Center, has seen the impact.
"In 2010 and 2011, I did more funerals than I could ever imagine," said Simmons. "I've seen the devastation of seeing young folks dying from 16 to 18 to 21."
He recalled praying with a young man who a week later was gunned down in a gang-fueled attack. "It has affected all of us," Simmons said.
Last fall, Melekian's office announced it would give the Sheriff's Department $11.3 million over three years to fund its plan. It was the largest grant the office awarded in the country.
Though the project is mostly staffed by sheriff's deputies, officers from eight local and federal agencies are involved, including Elk Grove and Citrus Heights police and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The division, officials say, is committed to combating gangs across Sacramento County, and not according to jurisdictional boundaries. "We will go where the gangs take us," said sheriff's Capt. Erik Maness.
The Impact Division is composed of three distinct units.
The gang suppression unit reflects the most traditional law enforcement approach, with an emphasis on arresting gang members for felonies and seizing their guns and drugs.
The unit's 14 detectives and four sergeants serve search and arrest warrants and perform surveillance and probation and parole searches on people who have been identified as gang members by law enforcement.
Recently, Woodland police contacted the unit for help in catching two Sacramento County gangsters they suspected were involved in shooting two people at a Woodland bar. After hours of surveillance, detectives arrested both suspects in one morning. From one suspect's home, they pulled his wife, their toddler and two guns, one of them an Uzi.
The unit is needed, said sheriff's Sgt. Ken Rickett, because gangsters don't discriminate: He cited one recent shooting in which a bystander a woman in a wheelchair was caught in gang crossfire. Deputies found 30 shell casings at the scene.
"These are not marksmen," he said. "They don't necessarily hit their target, and it's a citizen that pays the price."
A counterpoint to the suppression unit, the youth services unit has six deputies and one sergeant whose focus is forging relationships with kids and their families.
"Their job is to go out every day and make a difference in the life of a kid," Maness said.
Youth services officers visit schools at lunchtime, organize after-school clubs and sports teams, and award good behavior with perks such as Kings tickets. They talk to teachers about warning signs and reach out to parents, too. They try to give a positive face to the police in communities that often see the negative.
Barbara Amundson, principal at Greer Elementary in the Arden area, said she has seen the influence of two deputies on several students with behavioral and emotional problems.
"Sometimes in their homes they don't have consistency and they don't have somebody they can depend on," she said. "Sometimes there are false promises."
The deputies, however, "have been really consistent."
"It's making an impact," she added, "and they're just starting."
Assisting gang suppression and youth services officers have been the five analysts and one sergeant assigned to the intelligence unit, which serves as a hub of information about area gangs.
Military-grade software helps them map out hierarchies and relationships among gangsters. They use it to track behavior patterns, down to when a gangster typically sells drugs and when he is home acting as a father.
It's software never before used by an agency not devoted to terrorism, sheriff's officials said.
The tactics employed by the Impact Division are not new, nor unique to the Sheriff's Department. But officials say the manpower the grant has enabled is critical: The division has the capacity to handle labor-intensive investigations. Its officers can be proactive as well as reactive.
No one can remember a time in the Sheriff's Department that the gang unit was larger than eight people. Now there are 18 in gang suppression alone, with 13 more supporting their mission.
James Hernandez, a gang expert at California State University, Sacramento, said balancing suppression with outreach is a smart approach, one more likely to produce results than just focusing on arrests.
But it could take a few years for the real effects to be seen, he cautioned.
"People have high expectations. They see everything done in a 50-minute TV show," Hernandez said. "We're talking a long-term program.
"And for (the Sheriff's Department) to do that is really sticking your neck out. It's a really gutsy approach. I think it's awesome."