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How Budget Cuts Have Forced SD’s Hand on Gang Policing

Above: Gang suppression officers arrest documented gang members during a March 2010 curfew sweep. San Diego police haven't choked off the flow of new gang recruits, documenting more than 400 new gang members since 2007.

San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne's comments to City Council Monday painted a pretty clear -- and frightening -- picture.

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"There is one thing -- and it's one thing -- that keeps me awake at night: our communication system," Lansdowne said.

He was referring to the department's computer aided dispatch, or CAD, system, which dispatches emergency 9-1-1 calls.

Its software was written in the 1970s. The infrastructure for it was installed in 1991. A walk-through of the department's dispatch center downtown feels like a 1980s cop movie.

The department has lost more than 300 positions to budget cuts since 2009. It recently pleaded for (and the council approved) $6.9 million to update that essential CAD system. The strain has meant that rather than digging in to persistent public-safety issues with fresh tactics, the department is digging itself out of a hole.

"They're a very traditional, outdated department," said Joshua Chanin, a criminal justice professor at San Diego State University. "There's a disconnect between their rhetoric and what I see."

Chanin refers to the department's claim it's been an innovator in community policing. Indeed, San Diego was an early adopter of the policing style, which calls for officers to work alongside community members on crime prevention rather than suppression alone. But a bare-bones force has taken its toll.

"Community policing efforts have been impacted," said Asst. Chief Lawrence McKinney. "But they have not been discontinued."

At a time when other police departments are taking community policing to the next level, San Diego is struggling to maintain its status quo. Here are two ways San Diego is bucking community-policing trends as it ducks the budget ax.

Starving the Gangs of Oxygen

Connie Rice, a civil rights lawyer who's spent the last decade guiding the Los Angeles Police Department out of shadows cast by the Rodney King beating and Rampart scandal, says there's only one way to end gang violence: "Starvation from oxygen."

A gang's lifeline -- its oxygen -- is its steady flow of new recruits. Rice likens the strategy to letting the air seep from the opening of a balloon. You can't just pop it, she said, because "when you attack a gang, you make it stronger."

San Diego hasn't choked off its gang problem.

A review of documents from the San Diego Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention reveals the number of local youth joining gangs has consistently outnumbered those leaving them. Since 2007, officers have documented more than 400 new gang members.

A 2004 study commissioned by the Department of Justice found no evidence San Diego police were trying to prevent individuals from becoming gang members. It was considered the social service sector's responsibility, not the police's.

The department's five-year plan, released last summer, reports officers have just the five to 10 minutes between calls for proactive policing work.

Prevention requires investment from everyone, not just police. And San Diego nonprofits working in conjunction with the local gang commission are keeping up their end of the bargain.

There are people working to bring job opportunities to youth in gang communities. The Department of Park and Recreation, with support from the police department, is keeping recreation centers open late and organizing nighttime events in parks.

Lansdowne sits on the gang commission, a consortium of social service and law enforcement leaders that buoys those efforts and drives gang prevention policy. Thus, Lansdowne's department has its hand in most of the community-driven efforts. But the department's own gang intervention tactics seem to focus on the other end of the assembly line -- counseling gang members who want to get out and helping them get rid of their gang tattoos. Its curfew sweeps funnel youth into intervention programs -- arguably before they take on riskier behaviors -- but it's also a suppression tool that results in an arrest.

In Los Angeles, some officers are being reviewed based on what they do at the start of the assembly line. A pilot program assigns those officers to a single housing project, where they take on a role similar to that of a social worker, for five years. They're charged with keeping the peace there, but also making sure children have school supplies and strained families get counseling. The idea is that they'll be able to step in early and actually measure the number of kids they keep from joining gangs.

"They're the only cops in the entire country who get promoted based on how they demonstrate they didn't arrest a child," Rice said.

Rosa Ana Lozada, chairwoman of San Diego's gang commission, also emphasizes measuring prevention.

She said San Diego may be documenting new gang members every year, but it's not counting the number of kids who didn't join gangs because they came into contact with a nonprofit or a great police officer.

"Why haven't the programs been successful?" Lozada said. "Well, I'm not sure they haven't."

A Lifeline for the Gang Commission

Lozada and her colleagues are well versed in national gang intervention trends. Her commission's strategic plan champions a lot of the same community strategies Rice credits with cutting Los Angeles' homicide rate by about 70 percent since 1997.

But there's one major difference: money.

Los Angeles allocates $24 million for gang intervention strategies coming out of its Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development. The city pays a deputy mayor, Guillermo Cespedes, to oversee the operation.

San Diego's commission is volunteer-based. It meets six times a year.

"They're asking volunteers to do something that's a full-time job," Cespedes said. "We don't address other city services that way. Street sweeping isn't staffed by volunteers."

Cespedes and Rice said having a force in the mayor's office is integral to their success.

San Diego's commission spends much of its time writing letters of support for community organizations seeking grants. The commission has called for funding to see through its strategic plan.

But Lozada said there's an upside to the lack of funds and bureaucracy that comes with them: The commission is free to focus on a broad spectrum of community-generated solutions.

"It allows us to be neutral with everyone that's interested in advancing the work of the commission," Lozada said.

Of course, Los Angeles and San Diego are incongruous in size and the scope of their gang problems. Maybe San Diego doesn't need to fund a special gang office.

Even Rice admitted Los Angeles, with its 450 gangs, doesn't have all the answers yet.

"We're building the airplane as we're flying it," she said.

But last year, gang-related crimes were up across the board in San Diego. Lansdowne said it was the first time in 10 years he'd seen that kind of rise in activity.

San Diego has a lot of the same pieces Los Angeles does -- just not the investment to get off the ground.

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