It may be just a spasm of violence, not a longer-term trend, but the city must control an apparent gang war in south Sacramento before it gets bloodier.
This is one of the first big tests for Police Chief Sam Somers Jr., who took the reins a year ago and who reports to the City Council this evening on his department’s response.
Police have added patrols in the Oak Park and Mack Road areas, are targeting known gang members and are coordinating with other law enforcement agencies – all worthwhile and what you would expect. Vice Mayor Jay Schenirer, who represents Oak Park and who asked Somers to appear before the council, says it’s important for the community to know that police are focusing on the problem, especially since gang violence tends to worsen during the summer.
Schenirer told The Bee’s editorial board that he also wants to know more about the department’s long-term strategy on gangs.
One issue that Somers needs to put to rest is whether a shift in the city’s anti-gang efforts has backfired. In 2011, a local version of a national grassroots program known as Ceasefire had some initial success in the Mack Road corridor. Ministers led marches to get the message out and teamed up with law enforcement to persuade gang leaders to leave the gang life and accept job training and other help. In 2012, however, federal and state grants ran out and city support weakened. Some ministers and police leaders, including Somers, soured on Ceasefire, saying that too much was spent on overhead for too few results.
Now, some supporters of Ceasefire question whether it’s more than coincidence that the gangs and neighborhoods involved in the recent shootings were the same ones targeted by their program.
Police, however, say there’s no connection whatsoever. Instead, the trigger was the rival gangs taunting each other, the department says. On March 15, several Mack Road gang members assaulted an Oak Park gang member in the Arden Fair mall and posted a video on YouTube, The Bee’s Kim Minugh reported. That night in apparent retaliation, three people were shot in the Mack Road area; the next day, there were two drive-by shootings in Oak Park.
In place of Ceasefire, Somers started a “cops and clergy” initiative to reach gang members. The chief has to show results from his program, too.
Another issue facing the city is whether more money from Measure U – the local sales tax increase approved by voters to restore public safety services slashed during the recession – should be specifically targeted to fight gangs.
Of the $25.8 million in Measure U proceeds in the current budget, the Police Department is getting $11.9 million and hired more patrol officers, in part to reinforce anti-gang operations. Also, the Parks and Recreation Department used $50,000 of its share to hire a gang prevention staffer. Last spring, however, the City Council turned down more extensive, more expensive proposals from the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force and from the Ceasefire partnership led by Sacramento Area Congregations Together.
As city officials and council members decide priorities for the 2014-15 budget, fighting gangs ought to be high on the list. Schenirer, for one, is interested in beefing up programs to prevent youths from joining gangs. “Is there more that we could be doing?” he asks.
It’s not just about stopping gang members from killing each other. Gang wars can put entire neighborhoods under siege – and innocent people can get caught in the crossfire.