Paso Robles police to team up with Sheriff's Department to combat violence and gang activity

Escalating gang aggression and a rash of cuts in police ranks have prompted multiple law enforcement officials to come to the aid of Paso Robles in an effort to crack down on what is being called a “surge of violence” there.

As crime escalates within the city, the limited resources of the department, already hit by layoffs, continue to be strained beyond their capacity.

“The big thing in this is really the formal recognition finally that we have an issue that we need to address,” said Sheriff Ian Parkinson, adding that there is no end date for the cooperative agreement.

The effort, dubbed “Safe Streets,” will target specific neighborhoods and areas within the city known to have gang activity, Paso Robles police Chief Lisa Solomon said.

The targeted operations will be unannounced and are intended to surprise and inundate gang members — using a zero tolerance policy to intimidate known gang affiliates.

Agencies lending a hand in the operations include the Sheriff’s Department, the CHP, the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department, probation and parole.

It is the first time so many agencies have partnered to focus on problems occurring within city boundaries.

“It just makes sense that all of us be involved in this problem,” Solomon said. “We want to solve the issues on a long-term and regional level. It is in all of our best interests.”

The most recent incident believed to be gang related happened last week when a shooting at an apartment complex left a man hospitalized.

Solomon said violence on city streets such as stabbings, shootings and other criminal activity reached similar levels in the late 1990s.

The concern now, she said, is outside gang influences from communities such as Salinas, King City and Greenfield contributing to an existing problem.

Solomon said there are a “handful” of active gangs in the Paso Robles area. The police department has faced stringent budget cuts over the past four years — dropping to 27 sworn officers from 41 in 2007.

The original plan, she said, was to grow the department to 46 sworn personnel.

According to Bureau of Justice statistics, in 2003, the average number of police officers for a city the size of Paso Robles was 54 — or 1.8 officers per 1,000 residents. The city’s current ratio is 0.9 officers for every 1,000 residents.

The City Council has authorized hiring four officers whom Solomon hopes to have on staff by early next year.

Mayor Pro Tem Fred Strong said the new cooperative agreement isn’t a result of the Police Department’s dwindled staffing.

“These problems cross borderlines, and it is a matter of practicality of how you deal with that,” Strong said.

The general community has not yet felt the impact of the growing gang violence, Strong said.

“There are small numbers of people fighting over this area as turf, resulting in almost all internecine wars,” Strong said. “It hasn’t affected the general community that much, but when you see someone hurt or killed, no matter where they came from we don’t want that they are our people, too.”

Mayor Duane Picanco said it is imperative that the community also become more vigilant and revive neighborhood watch programs.

“We don’t have as many personnel out there on the street, therefore we need the help of our residents,” Picanco said. “With the reduction in staff, we need more eyes on the streets and sidewalks.”

Solomon said she has grown frustrated with witnesses remaining silent because they are fearful of retaliation.

“We want to assure potential witnesses that we can protect them,” she said. “The window of opportunity is closing in terms of being a cooperative witness and at some point becoming hostile.”

Solomon said she will soon consider bringing charges against witnesses to force them to cooperate.

“If they are not going to come forward on their own, then we are going to do what we need to in order to get them to come forward,” she said.

Parkinson said staffing would be realigned in order to make a visible presence in the community.

He said focus would also be paid to outlying areas such as Shandon and San Miguel to ensure that the problem isn’t simply shifted out of city limits.

“We can’t give up territory,” Parkinson said. “It is all for one here with a unified approach to combat a growing issue. We don’t want it to reach a point that we no longer have the ability to control it.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.