Fresno mayor talks to colleagues about combating gang violence

01/22/2014 3:12 PM

01/23/2014 4:00 AM

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin on Wednesday shared her city’s hard-won knowledge about street gangs with an attentive national audience.

For Swearengin, the hour-plus discussion at a high-profile mayors’ conference was an opportunity to stress Fresno’s successes amid its continuing challenges. For other mayors, it was a chance to learn from those who have been on the front lines.

“Our fight to address gang violence has gone on consistently for the past 12 and a half years,” Swearengin said. “You have to fight this issue on multiple fronts.”

Swearengin is one of about 280 mayors signed up for this week’s U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting in the nation’s capital. She is one of the few from the Central Valley in attendance, though Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson was set to attend as vice president of the mayors’ organization.

As chair of the Mayors and Police Chiefs Task Force, Swearengin ran an afternoon session attended by mayors representing cities ranging from a resort town like Myrtle Beach, S.C., to a diverse university enclave like Durham, N.C.

Gangs and thugs, the mayors made clear, can quickly cross borders and adapt.

“We can’t let up for a second,” Swearengin declared. “The city has been very successful in putting proactive efforts into place.”

A total of 2,748 violent crimes were reported in the city of Fresno in 2012, according to the FBI. This marked a 27 percent decrease from violent crimes in Fresno in 2002.

Stymied by bad weather, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer missed his scheduled appearance at the conference. He gave his talking points to Swearengin, including, she said, the acknowledgment that “our police union has not been a big fan” of the department’s deploying detectives into the field during dangerous summer months.

Swearengin also stressed the importance of less controversial law enforcement tactics, including the use of technology, data and analysis. She indicated that, all told, the city’s police department has about 70 officers dedicated to fighting gangs.

Other mayors tossed in their own suggestions, with Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin citing his city’s use of adult mentors, summer camps, a youth commission and an evening sports program.

“Hopefully, when they leave (the night sports), they’ll be so tired they’ll just go home,” Benjamin said.

The three-day mayors’ conference that formally started Wednesday includes, besides endless networking, presentations by multiple cabinet agency chiefs, such as Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius. The mayors are to meet with President Barack Obama on Thursday afternoon.

The meeting also offers some valuable face time for city officials and the federal authorities who control some purse strings. On Wednesday afternoon, prior to the public task force meeting, Swearengin met privately with the new head of the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Formerly police chief of East Palo Alto, COPS Director Ronald L. Davis is in a position to help. In 2009, the Fresno Police Department received a $10.2 million federal grant to help hire 41 officers, and a new round of grants is upcoming, despite congressional Republicans’ periodic effort to eliminate funding for the program.

“Ensure that the police department is not the sole agency that deals with community policing,” Davis told mayors Thursday, citing the importance of drawing in planning, health and other resources. “Public safety has to be a shared responsibility.”

Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason added that some anti-gang programs may sound good, but may not be proven as truly effective.

The popular “scared straight” program of exposing young offenders to hardened criminals, Mason said bluntly, “doesn’t work.” That was a bit of a shock to several of the mayors, who noted that a variation of “scared straight” is used in their communities.

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