15 year-old Isaac Gonzales was shot and killed while walking near his home last month. He was an aspiring boxer who police say was not involved in a gang. Credit: TKO Boxing

Santa Ana city leaders are starting a community-wide conversation about how to address one of the city’s most troubling trends: a sharp increase in gun violence, largely attributed to gangs.

Shootings in the city tripled from 2013 to 2016, according to the police department, and homicides doubled last year. Just last month, 15 year-old Isaac Gonzales, an up-and-coming boxer who police say was not in a gang, was shot and killed while walking near his home.

“There comes a point in time where we have to come up with a holistic approach,” Councilwoman Michele Martinez said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, where she led a discussion about the shootings increase.

“When we come together and we work together, we can save lives.”

There was broad agreement about that among a majority of council members, as well as residents who spoke about the issue Tuesday.

“It takes everyone on this,” said Councilman Juan Villegas, adding “it’s really, really hard to convince someone who’s already” in a gang to change.

Many of those who spoke Tuesday agreed the effort needs not only police, but also getting to the root of the recent surge in violence and helping at-risk youth and gang members get on a positive track.

Actions being considered by the council include creating a city staff position to coordinate youth opportunities, strengthening the police department’s gang unit, and incentivizing gang members to turn away from violence.

Martinez called on her colleagues to consider a comprehensive intervention model used in New Haven, Connecticut, known as Project Longevity, which Yale University researchers found to be effective in reducing gang violence.

The approach – which involves law enforcement, social services, education opportunities, job training, drug and alcohol treatment, and community volunteers – led to a drop of five gang shootings and killings per month on average, a Yale study found.

The next step for Santa Ana is a conversation scheduled for Friday, called “Convening on Gun Violence in Santa Ana,” which was organized by Martinez and Santa Ana Unified School District board member Valerie Amezcua. It’s open to the public and scheduled for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Life Center (1920 E. 17th Street, Suite 120).

Leaders of religious and nonprofit groups told council members they’re ready to help.

Pastor Daniel de Leon of Templo Calvario said he represents a coalition of over 50 nonprofits and faith-based groups that work in the city and want to engage every youth in the city in a community organization.

“This is a critical need. The violence needs to stop,” said de Leon, asking the council to designate a staff member to work with community groups to coordinate efforts and plans.

Altogether 10 members of the public spoke about the shootings increase Tuesday, nearly all of them urging a comprehensive approach that includes opportunities for youth. Some called for the creation of a Youth Department within the city, starting with a single staff position.

That idea was strongly supported by Councilman David Benavides, who said it would “pay dividends” for city residents and noted the city of Denver has a youth success director.

“If our young people were all involved in something positive, mentored, engaged – whether it be sports, recreation, after school programs, leadership programs…we wouldn’t end up seeing what we’re seeing right now, which is the impacts of the gangs, of the violence,” Benavides said.

Police Chief Carlos Rojas, meanwhile, said officers are needed to enforce the laws, but that a “holistic approach” that engages nonprofits and faith groups “is key.”

“We can’t do it ourselves. We can’t arrest ourselves out of the problem,” Rojas said.

Councilman Jose Solorio agreed with the need for a comprehensive approach and more discussion of the issue, while emphasizing the police department’s gang unit now has half as many officers as it did in the 1990s.

“We are woefully short on police officers,” Solorio said, adding he believes more officers could be added without increasing the police department’s budget.

Council members Sal Tinajero and Vicente Sarmiento were absent from Tuesday’s meeting. Mayor Miguel Pulido attended most of Tuesday’s meeting but left when the shootings discussion began and didn’t return, without explaining why.

According to a Yale University summary of the New Haven approach:

“Law enforcement, social service providers, and community members conducted ‘call-ins,’ meetings with members of violent street groups to deliver a unified message: that the gun violence must stop, that there is help for those who want it, but that those who choose to continue committing acts of violence will meet with swift legal consequences…

“Representatives from law enforcement agencies spoke to street group members first, making sure to articulate the new rules being implemented and stressing that those who continue to engage in gun violence (and their groups) would meet with increased attention from law enforcement agents. Next, social service providers showed attendees that help is available, including housing assistance, high school diploma or general education development classes, job training, and drug or alcohol recovery programs. Finally, community volunteers known to and respected by the street group members acted as ‘moral voices,’ articulating to attendees the anti-violence message of the program…and drawing on their own unique positions within the community to help attendees connect with the message.”

Sometime before May 19, the council plans to hold a study session about how to address the shootings. Council members also plan to discuss funding for the violence reduction efforts as they craft the city’s new budget, which is adopted in June and takes effect July 1.

In the meantime, the shootings continue. Just before the council met Tuesday, two elementary schools went on lockdown after a shooting right next to them. Nobody was hit, and the suspects fled the scene in a stolen vehicle, according to police. A photo showed bullet casings just a few feet from the fence of Walker Elementary School.

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

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