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Optimistic yet guarded response to Mayor Johnson’s gang prevention initiative

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Mayor Kevin Johnson was flanked by high-ranking law enforcement officials, community leaders, students and others as he officially launched his Gang Prevention Initiative at the Teichert Branch Boys and Girls Club of South Sacramento.

The plan was announced Tuesday morning after a year of gathering input from the community from neighborhood meetings throughout the Sacramento area and combining the results with the efforts of the mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force.

The community came together in the aftermath of the murder of innocent bystander Monique Nelson following a gang-related gun battle at the Fly Cuts and Styles barbershop in the 6900 block of Stockton Boulevard on Dec. 14, 2010. Six other victims were injured during the barbershop shootout including Marvion Barksdale who subsequently died of his injuries.

Johnson emphasized his vision to create a “paradigm shift” toward prevention and away from law enforcement after the fact in an effort to discourage youth involvement in gang-related activities.

Johnson praised law enforcement officials for bringing all of the shooters involved in the tragedy to justice within four months of the incident.

“Law enforcement and the community must do better to build a relationship based on trusting one another,” Johnson said.

The community values at the core of the Mayor’s initiative include holding youth accountable for their conduct, not trying to arrest our way out of the problem, and meeting community challenges with community responses. Johnson emphacized that the city will not give up on its youth because that are valued.

To implement his strategy, Johnson said “a school-based approach” to encourage literacy and discourage juvenile delinquency is necessary.

"85% of the juveniles that are caught up in justice system are functionally illiterate," said Johnson when explaining why it is so important to have all children reading at grade level by the third grade.

To counteract gang activity, Johnson wants to increase community empowerment. He specifically targeted the Neighborhood Watch program, the Problem Oriented Policing program and the gun buyback program as ways to help to make neighborhoods safer.

Johnson also emphasized the importance of workforce readiness and positive alternatives such as internships. He said the summer jobs program spearheaded by Councilmember Jay Schenirer needs to be “bigger and bolder.”

County Undersheriff Mark Iwasa announced that the department applied for and received two grants to fund gang prevention activities that will keep 25 officers on the streets in various roles related specifically to gang prevention.

Without the grants, Iwasa acknowledged that the positions would likely have been eliminated.

Isawa said the three-year program will focus on prevention and intervention through the use of school resource officers as positive role models, in addition to the more traditional activities such as intelligence gathering, crime analysis and enforcement.

The Sacramento police department also announced that it received a grant that will allow for 24 officers to remain on the beat specifically to target gang activities after those positions had been threatened by budgetary challenges.

Betty Williams, president of the Sacramento branch of the NAACP, said the national NAACP office recently awarded the local branch a grant to support its efforts to become more involved in the strategic effort to decrease youth gang activities.

Williams said Sacramento branch would probably not have received the award without the mayor’s letter of support.

The award was only one of two granted throughout the country and will fund at least one, but possibly up to three, paid staff positions. Williams said the award will greatly enhance the Sacramento branch’s ability to develop more of a presence in the community in support of the mayor’s anti-gang efforts.

Johnson responded to a question about the use of current resources to further these efforts by acknowledging that the plan is not complete and that the financial struggles to fund the implementation team are a concern.

Johnson further acknowledged that city and county officials have been willing to work “outside of the box” and that they must continue to “work within the solution.”

Johnson made it clear that regional cooperation of all local law enforcement jurisdictions would be required to make the plan successful.

Isawa said the mayor’s plan has encouraged law enforcement to work more closely together across jurisdictional lines, thereby creating savings by eliminating unnecessary duplication of efforts.

Isawa also said they will continue seeking grants before the current three-year awards expire.

Members of Monique Nelson’s extended family were frequently acknowledged for the difficulties they have faced during the past year throughout the press conference. Most speakers that came to the podium remarked on the tragedy that brought the community together.

“Our family has been destroyed by gang violence,” said Richard Anthony Nelson, brother of the slain victim. “It’s been a difficult year.”

Johnson also took time to acknowledge the “negative catalyst” that brought the community together before the formal press conference adjourned.

Members of the faith-based community joined together with community activists and individuals affected by gang violence to take turns speaking at a podium set up in front of the Boys and Girls Club to honor Monique Nelson and acknowledge others who have fallen as a result of gang violence.

“Use this day for gain, not loss, for the sacrifice that Monique made,” said Beatrice Bailey, an aunt of Monique Nelson who expressed to those gathered around how much she missed the close relationship she shared with her niece. “Don’t let the support and concern end today.”

Labeeba Rahman attended the event after learning of it when she expressed an interest in becoming involved in direct intervention with at-risk youth. She was visibly moved by the comments of community activist Rhonda Erwin, who expressed her frustrations with gang violence when describing how one of her sons is serving a life term in prison and another mother’s son was killed because of gangs.

“I remember the incident when the young man Rhonda mentioned was killed,” Rahman said. “I live in that neighborhood, and having her discuss it so openly brings up the horrible memories. It feels like it just happened yesterday.”

Erwin reserved some of her sharpest comments until after the memorial service was completed.

“Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” she said. “But it appears the jobs are going to law enforcement and not to the youth who need to be employed.”

Erwin continued on to indicate that she was disappointed that none of the other victims of the tragic shootout were acknowledged by name during the press conference. “The Barbershop shooting didn’t just take the life of Monique, it also took the life of a 20-year-old youth,” Erwin stated in reference to Marvion Barksdale.

Others who were in attendance at the memorial expressed sentiments ranging from frustration to a call for action and accountability in the community.

“The challenge is to save our young people,” said Steve Streeter, a retired law enforcement official who now mentors young victims of violent crimes in his role as the case manager for the Wraparound Project at the UC Davis Medical Center. “These are our kids, and we’ve got to do everything we can to save them.”

“I work in the main jail,” stated Sacramento Sheriff Deputy Henry Harry during his time at the podium outside of the Boys and Girls Club.

Sheriff Deputy Henry Harry, who works in the main jail, said the best strategy for our at-risk youth is “not to lock them up, but to help them.”

The current reality is that many youthful offenders lose their lives to lengthy prison sentences at a very young age once it is charged and proven by the District Attorney in court that a crime was committed in furtherance of gang activitiy. Following a trend in legistation that has developed since the creation of the three strikes and you’re out law, violent offenders now face severe consequences for crimes that involve gangs and guns, even if an offender is not facing a third strike.

“Our children are dying on our streets and becoming the walking dead in California state prisons because of the lengthy sentences that are being handed out based on enhancements for gang membership,” Erwin lamented.

Community activist Marta Rodriguez spoke about the difficulties of changing her life course and developing a positive lifestyle after spending part of her youth involved in gang activities.

“What are we going to do with former gang members?” Rodriguez asked, throwing up her hands with a very concerned look on her face. “It’s very discouraging for many people when doors are shut because of (negative) background checks.”

”Not enough former parolees and probationers realize that they may be eligible for a certificate of rehabilitation or to have their felony convictions expunged,” criminal defense attorney Keith Staten said. “Also, the required filing fees may be waived if the individual is struggling financially. Often having one’s felony convictions set aside by the courts can make a tremendous difference to an ex-felon who is seeking employment.”

The very real struggles and frustrations with overcoming a history of bad choices were evident in the comments of some of the attendees who came to the event hoping to hear some words of encouragement and a message of hope for the future.

“I heard a lot of words today, and it sounded like the police were the only ones who received any money,” stated Brian M., a 31-year-old parolee in the process of changing his life around after years of gang activity, including multiple terms in prison. “It’s difficult to understand how anything I heard today is actually going to benefit someone like me who is at risk.”

“It’s all about people,” said Gregory King, president of Always Knocking Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to stopping youth and gang violence. “It’s all about the daily struggle, and until our people get on board, we must keep pushing.”

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