During my 30 years as a Stockton police officer, the gang members seemed to get younger and younger, and it wasn’t simply because I was getting older. Gangs constantly changed their recruiting tactics and progressively targeted younger children. This made sense. Youths are most vulnerable to being recruited into gangs when they are not doing well in school and lack the sort of home support that instills a sense of responsibility.
I retired as a police captain in 2003, but four years later, I got a chance to work on this problem again. The city of Stockton asked me back to run Operation Peacekeeper, a youth gang-prevention project. Its goal is to prevent young people from being recruited into gangs, and it uses the services of outreach workers who have turned their lives around.
The youth gang-prevention project Operation Peacekeeper, founded in 1997, identified and recruited youth outreach workers who were former gang members or people who grew up in that environment and lost friends and family to gangs. At first, the project appeared to be counting some successes, and the city’s homicide rate went down. But eventually budget cuts left it with only one outreach worker.
When I took over the program, I started hiring more youth outreach workers, providing training and collaborating with various nonprofit and faith-based organizations to expand the program’s reach. I tried to provide leadership, pursue grants and maintain relationships with our partners. Today, Operation Peacekeeper has five youth outreach workers and one outreach coordinator. I hope it grows further.
The program has been changing. At first, Operation Peacekeeper worked with youths between the ages of 13 and 18, but now it tries to intervene earlier, down to the age of 10. Workers have also begun reaching out to older gang members looking for a way to get out of their gang lives.
In selecting an outreach worker, I liked to see what a person had been doing in the community. Some were already doing outreach through nonprofit organizations or churches. When someone is already “walking the talk,” that person is a promising hire.
You cannot save everyone, of course. It is especially frustrating when a youth who has had many hours invested in him goes back to his old ways or decides to get jumped into a gang. It is likewise tragic when we have to attend the funeral of a young person. Even responsible parents often miss the early warning signs of gang involvement. Among too many mothers, we see denial and hear “not my baby” comments when facts are brought to their attention. But many young people manage to make a change.
It is always difficult to measure what does not occur, and the seed you plant may take a long time to grow. But we have seen numerous young men completing their diploma, getting and retaining a job, and asking how they can help to change others. We often ask these individuals to give their testimony of change to others.
We have one youth who was convinced he wanted to be the next Al Capone and could not wait to get his hands on a gun; he was 14. His youth outreach worker was relentless in being in his ear and taking him on field trips that included kayaking, fishing and going to the University of the Pacific to get the feel of a beautiful and peaceful institution of learning.
These efforts successfully introduced him to another world. Over time, the youth began to put it together for himself, seeing that his “friends” were always trying to get him in trouble, while his youth outreach worker wanted to make his life better. The young man came full circle and is now helping to mentor other younger kids. He also got a job in the fast-food industry and has plans to further his education.
You cannot start these interventions too early. Gang members teach youth that violence is the answer and that respect is a one-way street. To change this, adults must reach young people even sooner and teach them to think differently. When they think differently, they will behave differently – provided we do, too. Most important, we adults must remember that what we do is far more important than what you say.
Ralph Womack, who was with the Stockton police for more than 30 years and program manager of Operation Peacekeeper for six years, was reassigned on July 1, to head the Operation Ceasefire program for the city of Stockton. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square (www.zocalopublicsquare.org).