Sacramento’s teen ‘killing zone’ isn’t just tragic. It’s a call to action.

A dead teen, a killer on the loose, a mother’s grief

Isaiah Diaz was standing in front of his grandmother’s home in Sacramento’s Colonial Village neighborhood. Someone drove up and shot him.
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Isaiah Diaz was standing in front of his grandmother’s home in Sacramento’s Colonial Village neighborhood. Someone drove up and shot him.

The number is hard to wrap your mind around – 114 teenagers killed by violence in Sacramento County since 2007. The photos of smiling teens, whose lives were cut far too short, are heartbreaking.

But sadness isn’t enough.

We should be outraged – and more than a little ashamed – after reading the extensive multimedia report by The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, Cynthia Hubert and Phillip Reese.

It should renew a call to action for law enforcement, community leaders and elected officials – everyone who cares about Sacramento.

A City Hall event Tuesday – that brought together city, school and community leaders to press for more youth programs and police resources to tackle gang violence in Oak Park – was welcome. (A 19-year-old man was killed in a drive-by shooting in Oak Park Wednesday night, bringing the count to 115). But the “killing zone” for teens extends to Del Paso Heights, Meadowview and other neighborhoods.

It’s a daunting challenge for Daniel Hahn, who is expected to become Sacramento’s new police chief and its first African-American one. He grew up in Oak Park and rose through the department ranks before leaving to become chief in Roseville in 2011, so appears to have the credentials and background to make a difference.

While there are no simple or easy solutions, there must be consistent follow-through, especially on two fronts.

One is that 42 killings of teens remain unsolved. If there’s any such thing as “closure,” their relatives and friends certainly aren’t getting it.

A big hurdle is that many deaths are linked to gangs, which makes it even more important that in the next few weeks the City Council decides on the best anti-gang strategy to target the relatively few criminals responsible for a lot of violence.

The “stop snitching” culture is also a reality on the street. So are fear of retaliation and a distrust of police in some communities. Still, it doesn’t excuse the pitiful fact that in at least eight unsolved cases, the victims were killed at large house parties with dozens of potential witnesses.

Yes, it takes courage to come forward, even anonymously, but witnesses have to think about grieving loved ones. They deserve justice. Maybe it’s time to get more creative and generous with rewards for information leading to convictions that civic-minded folks can help fund.

The Bee’s report says that detectives in other big California counties have about the same, or even less, success in closing teen homicides. Indeed, hundreds upon hundreds of unsolved killings have been piling up across the state and among all age groups. Statewide, the clearance rate for homicides was 61.5 percent in 2015, down from 65.7 percent in 2013.

The longer there’s no arrest, the tougher it gets to solve a case. As the backlog of cold cases increases, detectives have less time to spend on each one. It also surely isn’t a coincidence that the Sacramento Police and Sacramento Sheriff’s departments lost officers to budget cuts during the recession while many of these teens were killed.

Another big takeaway from The Bee’s analysis is that guns were used in 103 of the deaths – a far higher rate than the national norm. More teens were killed by gunshots to the head than any other cause.

It’s not clear where the guns came from, or whether they were stolen. Some are likely “street” guns that get passed around. It is clear, however, that too many guns are too easily accessible and used too casually, despite California having some of the nation’s strictest gun control laws. Guns used to commit crimes flow into the state from elsewhere, particularly Arizona and Nevada, according to federal data.

Firearm deaths of young people are a public health crisis. A new national study says they are the third-leading cause of death for people 17 and under, with an average of nearly 1,300 a year between 2002 and 2014.

But because the death toll builds slowly in Sacramento and other cities, one or two at a time, it doesn’t get enough attention. For every Jaulon “JJ” Clavo, the Grant High football player whose slaying in 2015 caused a community outpouring, there are many other victims whose deaths pass by unnoticed by the public.

Some were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But whatever trouble other teens found or bad choices they made, or lack of support they had from parents or relatives, it shouldn’t mean a death sentence.

Sacramento is on the upswing; there’s excitement about all the shiny new buildings and ambitious redevelopment downtown. But a city where this many young people are dying violently isn’t truly great. And while the safety of visitors and residents in the central city is important, it can’t take priority over this terrible loss.

Sacramento isn’t alone in facing tragic gun violence, and not every homicide is going to be solved.

But we can – we must – do better.

Just weeks from graduating high school, Joseph Burrola was at a house party with friends in Rancho Cordova. A huge fight broke out. Burrola – who wasn’t involved in the fight – was shot in the back and died, leaving his family to grieve their loss

A jogger discovered LaShawn Peters’ bloodied body laying in a Meadowview Park, between a basketball court and a playground. No arrests have been made.

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