Police, prosecutors, community groups focus on gang crime

mfountain@thetribunenews.comApril 1, 2014 

Combating gang activity in San Luis Obispo County continues to top the list of public safety priorities, but local programs to prevent youth gang involvement have flourished in the last three years, officials told the county Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

That was the message the county’s Anti-Gang Coordinating Commission gave as it updated supervisors on its activities since 2009, when the supervisors approved the commission’s strategic plan.

The commission was created to improve communications and share resources between law enforcement agencies and community groups to combat gang activity.

An average of 10 gang-related violent crimes have been prosecuted locally each year since 2011, according to County District Attorney Gerry Shea, Sheriff Ian Parkinson and Chief of Probation Jim Salio who presented the report to the board. Three have been homicides.

Parkinson said that San Luis Obispo County is a “middle ground” that serves as a buffer between rival gangs in Salinas and King City to the north and Santa Maria to the south. Anti-gang efforts have recently focused on North County due to North-South divisions among Hispanic gangs, Parkinson said.

But San Luis Obispo also has homegrown gangs, Parkinson said, noting the existence of a white supremacist organization in the Five Cities area.

According to the commission, law enforcement officials believed there were about 1,300 known gang members residing in the county in 2009. In 2013, there were 944, they said.

But the number of local violent crimes resulting in a gang-related conviction has not changed much since 2011. In that year, 10 violent, gang-related crimes were prosecuted in San Luis Obispo County. In 2012, that number dropped to seven, then jumped to 13 in 2013. There have been four so far in 2014.

In 2008, the county Probation Department had 167 active gang probation cases — including 98 juveniles. In 2013, the number had dropped slightly to 156 cases, including 81 juveniles.

“Obviously this is very disturbing to me,” County Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district includes Paso Robles and Atascadero, said Tuesday. “We can’t just sugarcoat this thing and pretend it’s not out there.”

In November 2009, the county hired Marci Powers, who formerly worked as a probation officer in Ventura County, to head the AGCC and act as the facilitator between the many stakeholders.

A lot of coordination is required — those stakeholders not only include law enforcement but also social services groups such as the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, the Transitions Mental Health Association and community-based groups such as the Paso Robles Youth Arts Foundation and the South County Youth Coalition.

Since its formation the commission has created a graffiti abatement program, established a teen center at the old Flamson Middle School campus in Paso Robles and started a number of job skills programs.

The commission also finds funding for local organizations — more than $110,000 since 2009—including an $88,000 grant for a new laser machine for the Liberty Tattoo Removal service, a $10,000 grant to expand the Probation Department’s Youth in Action program in Paso Robles, $1,000 to expand the Juvenile Hall library and $16,000 to create a Youth Pathways Endowment Fund to support future at-risk youth programs.

These have coincided with new services focusing on addiction, mental health and job preparedness at the county jail, a result of California’s recent state prison realignment.

“The programs at the county jail are more robust than ever before,” Shea said. Parkinson said the Sheriff’s Office’s Gang Task Force has increased its number of officers since the department’s reorganization of its gang and narcotics units, and is focusing on maintaining a high profile in areas considered to be gang hotspots.

“Our job is to be visible,” Parkinson said. “We can come up with the greatest enforcement in the world, but if we leave, they (gangs) come back.”

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