In the wake of a spike in gang violence the past two months that’s been acknowledged by both police brass and City Hall, the Tracy Police Department drew up a gang suppression plan and put it into practice the last week of 2010.
The blueprint, which draws heavily on a similar effort made in the beginning of 2010 to combat a similar turn-of-the-calendar crime wave, was officially presented to the City Council on Tuesday, Jan. 18.
The plan calls for two two-officer patrol teams that will be dedicated to gang activity. They will be on task seven days a week during the evening, late night and early morning shifts. The teams will work on the detail for two months, then be off the duty for two months, and then will be “on” for another two months.
The report also called for more gang-prevention outreach to youngsters, especially local third- and fourth-graders.
Police Lt. Greg Farmanian said that the strategy should put the lid on the 650-plus gang members who have been documented as being active — though not necessarily living in — Tracy.
City staffers estimate it will take $125,000 in extra general fund money to keep the effort up through June, because of overtime costs to the police department. Another $5,000, Farmanian explained, is also needed to update the department’s files. The original price tag of $400,000 was brought down, Farmanian said, by rearranging officers’ schedules.
The council will be asked to approve the expenditure in an upcoming meeting.
Farmanian said that the plan presents the city a way to manage gang violence to the best of its ability.
“This will be a permanent part of our (standard operating procedure),” Farmanian told the council.
And though there is probably nothing the city can do to realistically eliminate gangs, added Councilman and former Tracy police Capt. Mike Maciel, police can “create an environment where gangs find it tough to operate.”
Councilman Robert Rickman, a California Highway Patrol sergeant, grilled Chief Janet Theissen and Farmanian, suggesting that the situation never should have been allowed to get to the point where an extra strategy was needed.
“Like the public, I’m done with gang violence,” he said, voiced raised, from the dais. “This short-term strategy just to appease the public or this council, it has to stop.”
Farmanian and Theissen tried to assure Rickman that the department is doing what it can in terms of education, prevention and enforcement, and that even if police were to arrest every gang member, constraints on jail space and budget cuts to the district attorney’s office mean there’s only so much a police department can do to keep gang members off the streets.
City Manager Leon Churchill also said that it’s his — and city staff’s — intention that the budget proposal for 2011-12 will include the money to maintain the gang suppression efforts.
Mayor Brent Ives gave his thumbs-up to the police department’s plan, saying now it’s up to the City Council to give its support.
“This worked quite well (last year) … and this has been proven to work. And it worked well,” Ives said. “And this time, it’s not going to go away.
“It’s up to us to fund this … from here on out.”
Rickman agreed, but said he’d continue to put pressure on police department leadership to get the job done.
“This is something I’m not going to let go of,” he said.
Council members also heard a report from police Lt. David Sant about the department’s efforts downtown.
Several months ago, a petition was circulated by downtown business owner David Helm. Signed by at least 140 downtown business owners and regulars, it asked for the return of a regular beat patrol officer, who had been assigned elsewhere.
The petition claimed a rise in crime since the beat was eliminated.
In response, Sant said, two neighborhood resource officers have been tasked with spending a big chunk of their on-the-clock hours downtown, Volunteers in Police Services members were charged with spending at least 10 hours a week in the area, and patrol officers were directed to drive through at regular intervals, including on their way to and from patrols elsewhere in the city.
According to Sant, it’s given police a bigger presence than a single beat cop could.
“I think we’re having great success right now,” Sant said.
While Helm, owner of Helm’s Ale House, said he appreciated the work of on-the-street cops in securing downtown despite what he called initial reluctance by city administrators, he worried that it won’t last.
“I’ve been very satisfied with the department’s current response,” he said. “My concern is that it won’t be sustainable.”
The former police officer fears downtown will be “abandoned” like it was when the downtown beat officer was reassigned, allowing more quality-of-life crime to damage local commerce. He said a continued police presence is vital to growing downtown businesses.
“If we want to have a viable downtown, I think we should develop a nightlife, and it’s going to be damn difficult to do that if people don’t feel safe,” Helm said.
Ives agreed. In his mind, he wants downtown to be safe enough he feels comfortable walking with a toddler down the street at 10 p.m.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere near there,” Ives said.
“Citizens need to know it’s going to get better,” he continued. “If (downtown is) going to be more than it is, it needs to be safer than it is, whether that’s perception or real.”
Though Sant admitted parts of the “downtown security initiative” would be temporary, he insisted that the department would continue its enhanced enforcement.
“We won’t let it regress back to where it had been,” he said.
Councilman Maciel cautioned, however, that given the city’s ongoing budget deficit, the city and its residents need to set “realistic expectations.”
Ives added that police need to identify a concrete goal when it comes to safety downtown, then tell the council how much that goal would cost to achieve, letting elected leaders make spending decisions from there based on what’s realistic and what’s not.