Santa Ana Leaders Collaborate on Reducing Shootings, Gangs and Other Youth Violence

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

Nati Alvarado (center), a pastor and violence intervention worker with Neutral Ground, speaks at the forum last week. By his side are Steve Kim (left), an intervention worker and founder of Project Kinship; and Deputy Chief Doug McGeachy of the Santa Ana Police Department, who oversees the department's gang unit and homicide investigations.

More than 100 Santa Ana community members met last week in a new effort to improve collaboration on reducing violence among youth and gangs.

Gang members like me got off the streets” because the city and county worked with businesses to find jobs for at-risk youth in the 1970s, said Mark Morales, who now works as a safety officer at the Loren Griset Academy continuation high school.

“It kept us out of jail, it kept us out of prison,” added Morales, who said the programs were later discontinued.

The meeting last Friday drew a wide cross-section of city leaders and residents – including top officials from the city, schools, police, and nonprofit groups – amid a tripling of shootings and doubling of murders in recent years. The increase has been largely attributed to gangs.

One of the latest victims of the violence was 15 year-old Isaac Gonzales, an up-and-coming boxer who police say was not in a gang, yet was shot and killed while walking near his home last month.

“It’s going to take a unified effort by the community” to stop the violence, said Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who organized the meeting with Valerie Amezcua, a Santa Ana Unified School District board member who also works as a county probation officer.

Among the follow-up actions explored at the meeting were: expanding job and internship programs for youth, designating a person to coordinate youth programs across the city, expanding intervention efforts when youth join gangs or commit acts of violence, and learning from successful models in other cities.

The meeting was held at The Life Center church in Santa Ana, and brought together a wide cross-section of city leaders: two City Council members, Martinez and Juan Villegas; school board members Amezcua and John Palacio; the school district’s superintendent, Stefanie Phillips and interim school police chief, Mark Van Holt; several public school principals; the deputy police chief in charge of gang and homicide investigations, Doug McGeachy; a community college board member, Zeke Hernandez; violence intervention leaders Steve Kim and Nati Alvarado; community activists; and Gerardo Mouet, the city’s parks and recreation director.

The gathering focused on building a coalition of people interested in reducing the violence, and bridging gaps between various groups that don’t typically collaborate. And most of the meeting was an open forum for the public to offer ideas and ask questions of officials.

Nick Gerda / Voice of OC

Ignacio Rios Jr., a youth engagement coordinator with Resilience OC, emphasized a need for job and education opportunities for young people in Santa Ana.

Among the models discussed was the Watts Gang Task Force, which is credited with reducing youth shootings by two-thirds in the South Los Angeles neighborhood.

That effort brought together police, school, community, and city leaders into collaborative discussions with residents about reducing violence.

The Watts model was suggested by several people at the Santa Ana meeting, including Sean Garcia-Leys of the Urban Peace Institute, and was endorsed by the top school police officials.

“That has been a very successful program,” said Van Holt, the school police chief, urging Santa Ana community members to look into it.

Phillips, the school district superintendent, shared her experience growing up with a poor single mother in an area of Oakland that had a lot of gangs, which she said was similar to what many students face in Santa Ana.

Nick Gerda / Voice of OC

Philips speaks at the forum.

Phillips said her success “was about all the love and support that was poured into me,” from community organizations, parks and recreation, schools – all the people who “cared what happened to me.”

“It’s all about what we can do to help create new opportunities and new landscapes for our kids.” She asked community members to “please talk” with her and other leaders about how they can help.

“When we see the gang violence, when we see violence in our community, [it is] often just a symptom” of other issues in the home and community, Phillips said.

The school district has brought in two nonprofit groups to do violence intervention work on their campuses: Neutral Ground, headed by Alvarado; and Project Kinship, headed by Kim.

Alvarado and Kim said they focus on youth who are falling through the cracks and at-risk for committing violence – a population Kim described as those who have “traditionally been discarded.”

His job, he said, is about working with youth to see what they individually need, and working with partners to find resources to help them.

Alvarado, a former heroin addict who now is a pastor and intervention worker, said the work he and others do has helped turn youths around.

“We have kids that – though they are in neighborhoods, though they are identified [as] certain gang members – the majority of them, if they had a choice, they would not want to be involved” with gangs, said Alvarado.

When there’s a dispute at school that could lead to violence, Alvarado said intervention workers go to each side, get them to come to the table, and create a space to talk where the students are asked if they want to graduate and have a safe place to go to school and not get jumped. The students say yes, he said.

Matthew Cruz, the principal at César E. Chávez High School, said Alvarado and his group “really has made a difference” on the campus.

Cruz called for expanding a sense of “connectedness” between youth and community support. “That connectedness needs to be: we love you, we care about you, there’s a bright future for you, and we’re here to do that for you,” Cruz said.

One of the main points of agreement was that community members – including school officials, parents, youth, City Hall, nonprofits, activists and police – need to do a better job of communicating and working together on solutions.

Faith-based, nonprofit, and government programs in the city have been “fractured” into a “silo approach,” Martinez added, making them not as effective as they should be – something she said the city must “move beyond.”

She reiterated her call for a comprehensive approach like the Project Longevity effort in New Haven, Conn., which involves making clear to gang members that violence must stop, but that there is help – such as job training, housing assistance, and drug recovery programs – for those who want it. That effort led to a drop of five gang shootings and killings per month on average, according to a study by Yale University.

And in an effort to bridge the gap between various groups, there was widespread agreement that the city needs a point-person to coordinate youth programs, including creating a directory.

“We don’t have that central hub to say, hey, we’ve got” particular resources to help a young person, said McGeachy, the deputy police chief. “There’s a lot of churches out there and faith based organizations that want to help and really are looking for a way” to do that.

“The police department supports anything that we can do to begin to build jobs and build pathways” for people to move in “any other direction besides gangs,” he added.

About 50 people have signed up so far to help with the violence reduction effort, organizers said.

The group plans to meet next week to debrief and work on next steps. Amezcua said people interested in joining the effort can contact her and Alvarado at vamezcua1992@gmail.com and nati@ngservices.org.

“We don’t have all the answers. But we do need to work in partnership with each other,” Amezcua said. “This is just the beginning of what we’re going to do.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

  • James Martinez

    Gang members have to be accountable for their actions. Violence has no place for negotiations. We all have made mistakes. Paying the price for those actions, admitting you were wrong and then putting it in God’s hands. Having a personal relationship with his son Jesus Christ is the first step in the journey to recovery. Not a higher power, that’s jive.

    Asking people to volunteer for people who USED to be gang members is awesome. As a parent it would be unacceptable for me to imerse my child in a funded program that has current gang members participating as well.

    Young people are impressionable and allowing them to interact with gang members trying to go straight is a risk I’m not willing to take with my child. Those people have to have a certain amount of time in immersion programs with others like themselves before they are allowed to participate with other young people who have no idea what the gang life style is about.

    PREVENTION is tantamount to eradicate gangs. You have to go in these communities, classrooms and educate people’s minds from the gate. There should be 15 minutes allotted everyday in grades k-8 dedicated to an anti-gang campaign. You have to understand alot of these gang members are just born into a gang, they think it’s tradition, it’s not. You are a miscreant and terrorist to your community. If the state can afford to build prisons, which ain’t working out at all, then they can pay for that as well.

    None of us are perfect. It’s about standards and accountability. I have alot of vision of how to help change things. I hope others do as well…

  • LFOldTimer

    292 shooting in SA in 2016. It’s a war zone.

    Well, the SA council is off to a great start.

    Recently they turned their city into a sanctuary haven for illegal aliens, bringing more crime into their city. So now you are a magnet for more criminality. How’s that for a plan to mitigate crime???

    Not only that, the Council condones releasing (as opposed to deporting) illegal aliens CONVICTED of crimes against the state back into the SA neighborhoods after they serve their time for NON-IMMIGRATION related crimes against property and people. Of course once back in the neighborhoods the illegals will perpetrate MORE crimes on good SA citizens. But the Council couldn’t care less. From the other sides of their mouths they express concern about crime!!! LOL!

    And they complain about a lack of affordable housing. ha. So the Council acts like a magnet for illegal aliens – further contributing to the housing shortage and overcrowding which, of course, forces rent prices that are already UNAFFORDABLE UPWARDS. Bizarre.

    Don’t swallow their bait on how the Council is so concerned about crime and violence in SA. It’s all BS.

    Friends, don’t listen to what they tell you. Watch what they do!!!

    Oh, and anyone who goes along with their BS is complicit and PART OF THE PROBLEM!!!

    • justanon

      “292 shooting in SA in 2016. It’s a war zone.”

      What the f*ck are you talking about? This is just unnecessary hyperbole from someone who doesn’t even live in the city. Sanctuary city status has NOTHING to do with these crime statistics, but EVERYTHING to do with RACE-BAITING. Ignore this prolific VOC bigot.

      Fact:
      There were 23 homicides in the city last year, up from 11 in 2015, but DOWN from the nearly 80
      homicides in the city in the 90’s.

      Lake Forest, LF old bigot’s hometown had a bigger overall crime increase than Santa Ana in 2016.
      LF old bigot needs to focus on HIS hometown.

      • LFOldTimer

        “What the f*ck are you talking about? This is just unnecessary hyperbole from someone who doesn’t even live in the city.”

        I refuse to do another search on your behalf. I am not your office assistant.

        The OC Register reported the “292 shootings” in SA for 2016. It is public information. Just because you don’t have the know-how or technical aptitude to find it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

        Didn’t you read the link to this VOC article which contained this FACT:

        “Shootings in the city tripled from 2013 to 2016, according to the police department, and homicides doubled last year. ”

        You’re clueless while you purport to be an expert on so many subjects. lol.

        And you have no idea where I live, goofy. Don’t speculate.

        • justanon

          But you said “war zone”, what does that mean? Why the hyperbole????

          Why don’t you just admit your real purpose for commenting on all things Santa Ana, a city you DON’T live in by the way, is that you just want to bash undocumented immigrants. That’s it, that’s all you care about.

          You are a racist and a bigot and bashing Santa Ana is your raison d’etre.

          Sanctuary city status has nothing to do with the spike in crime so STOP PRETENDING that it does!

          • LFOldTimer

            292 annual shootings in any city with 300,000 people or thereabouts is a frigging war zone by any civilized estimate.

            I am trashing the CITY GOVERNMENT of SANTA ANA for FAILING to PROTECT their CITIZENS!!!

            HELLO??? ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION is PART of the PROBLEM.

            SNAP OUT of IT!!! GET a CLUE!!!

            Those who WILLFULLY break the law once (ie. ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS) are MUCH MORE likely to break the laws REPEATEDLY. They have PROVEN they have NO RESPECT for the LAW.

            Are you that daft???

          • justanon

            Santa Ana declared itself a “Sanctuary City” in December of 2016 the spike in homicides happened in January of 2016, so EXPLAIN please how these two things are related???

          • LFOldTimer

            There were 30 shootings in January 2017, you silly goose. Annualized that over 300 shootings. More than 2016.

            Do your research. Hint: the OC Register reported it. lol.

            Oh I forgot. You can’t. lol.

          • justanon

            You are the one blaming all the crime on “Sanctuary city” status, but have yet to provide one iota of evidence connecting the two.
            Where’s YOUR data and statistics connecting the two?

            Until you have some verifiable PROOF, please, SHUT THE F*CK UP!!!

          • verifiedsane

            Diaper boy baseless attacks using their potty mouth as usual. It’s nothing but more whaa whaa whaa from this coward anarchist want-to-be…. 🙂

          • LFOldTimer

            “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Monday said that 75 percent
            of the people detained last week in Immigration and Customs Enforcement
            (ICE) raids were “criminal aliens.”

            http://thehill.com/policy/international/319289-dhs-75-percent-of-individuals-arrested-last-week-were-criminal-aliens

            Just working jobs that Americans refuse to do. lol.

          • justanon

            Since when have YOU believed “government statistics”???

            Oh, the hypocrisy, lol!!!

          • LFOldTimer

            I think I know what I’ve been doing wrong with you. I haven’t explained things like I would to a 6 year old. My bad. So here, let me try again……

            You see, nations have fences and walls and borders just like our homes do. The purpose is to let everyone know that this is our property and to enter you must have our permission and approval.

            In other words, we have doors and windows on our homes. If some stranger opened our door or climbed through our window and walked into our house – we would demand that they leave. If they didn’t we would call the police to have them arrested and evicted for entering our home without our consent or approval. There are LAWS that protect us from intruders who don’t belong in our homes.

            This is the same everywhere around the world. It’s universal. All human beings are obliged to respect other human being’s property rights.

            Nations are no different. When intruders enter our country without our permission that makes them lawbreakers. It is our lawful right to tell them to leave and if they don’t to lawfully throw them out. Our country is our home too.

            This is the way all civilized nations act. All around the world. All nations have borders. All nations have immigration laws. And all nations protect their citizens from unlawful intruders. It’s the way of the world.

            Okay, NOW do you understand the facts of life on human behavior and their inherent property rights? Wonderful. Here’s a $1. Go buy yourself a Popsicle.

            I apologize for not treating you like a child from the beginning.

          • justanon

            Do you think ANYONE actually reads your BS? Even your lickspittle sycophant probably just “likes” your comments without reading them, lol!

            You’re a broken record, you keep posting the same drivel. Yes, we get it, you BLAME undocumented immigrants for all this country’s woes.

            Most people disagree with your assessment, we realize that we need their labor because we hire them and in turn, think we should treat them with the dignity and humanity they have earned and offer them a path to citizenship.

            But since it appears that you have nothing else to do, continue posting the same comments over and over as it probably gives a much needed respite to those who’d have to listen to you drone on in person. LOL!!!

          • LFOldTimer

            Naturally you don’t have diddly squat to refute my comment. All you can do is insult which proves that I’ve won the debate. Go look up ‘inferior’ in your bogus factcheck dictionary. Read it 100 times until you memorize the definition. If it still doesn’t stick read it 100 more times. Wash, rinse, repeat. hah.

            By endorsing illegal labor to take jobs from citizens and legal immigrants you are promoting criminality. You think we should treat criminals with “dignity”. Makes me wonder. 😉 Like I’ve said so many times – you’re anti-American and a detriment to the nation.

            I think you’d be happier living in a 3rd world banana republic.

          • justanon

            I’ve “refuted” your comments before, but you keep repeating the SAME POINTS in EVERY post. No matter the subject, you continually bring up “illegals” blaming them for almost every issue discussed on this site.

            But you always seem to forget the American citizens who GIVE the jobs to undocumented workers until I point it out and then as an aside include some BS about e-verify. Even though going after the American employers is the EASIEST, MOST EFFECTIVE AND MOST PERMANENT solution YOU still revert back to harassing the immigrants as your #1 solution. WHY????

            We all KNOW why, because like your POTUS and the rest of your alt-right ilk you are really racists at heart. Kicking poor, brown people around is so much more satisfying than slapping huge fines on old white guys. Amiright? LOL!!!!

          • LFOldTimer

            There you go again. Inappropriately playing the “racist” card against Americans who simply want to protect our nation from illegal criminal invaders who come here for freebies and to secure American jobs for our own underclass citizens and legal immigrants who play by all the rules to come to America.

            I have no idea how you can call yourself an “American” if you are one. I think you would be doing yourself and America a favor by relocating to the third world that you seem to love so much.

          • justanon

            Well, I’d love it if all you bigoted and authoritarian type trump supporters moved to Russia. You’d have a the ultimate repressive ‘strong-man’ to worship and the US could rid itself of the neo-fascist agenda you and your ilk support.
            It would be a win-win!

          • LFOldTimer

            Once again, dodging my point.

            I bet you were a real competitor at dodge-ball as a child.

          • LFOldTimer

            Do the math, silly goose.

            SA has been reported to be 40% illegal aliens. Do your research. It’s all over the local news. There are over 300,000 illegals in OC, the lion’s share living in SA. Research the LOCAL news media articles.

            SA FAR outdistances all other OC cities in shootings with 292 in 2016.

            Connect the dots, fool.

            Use whatever # of brain cells God gave you.

          • justanon

            You have to be able to back up those assertions with REAL DATA not just the c*ca you pull out of your *ss!

            “Last week Cato published a new immigration research and policy brief called “Criminal Immigrants: Their Numbers, Demographics, and Countries of Origin” that estimates the illegal immigrant incarceration rate—a subject long avoided in academic and policy research circles due to data limitations.

            Our headline finding is that both illegal immigrants and legal immigrants have incarceration rates far below those of native-born Americans—at 0.85 percent, 0.47 percent, and 1.53 percent, respectively. Excluding illegal immigrants who are incarcerated or in detention for immigration offenses lowers their incarceration rate to 0.5 percent of their population—within a smidge of legal immigrants. As a result, native-born Americans are overrepresented in the incarcerated population while illegal and legal immigrants are underrepresented, relative to their respective shares of the population. ”
            https://www.cato.org/blog/immigration-myths-crime-number-illegal-immigrants