PATTERSON -- Prompted by allegations that sheriff's deputies are harassing teenagers, a forum will be held this week to try to strengthen communications between residents and law enforcement.
The issue surfaced this summer when several people spoke at council meetings about harassment, citing incidents in which they felt deputies unfairly stopped or intimidated teens.
Patterson contracts with the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department for police services. Sheriff Adam Christianson will participate along with Police Chief Tyrone Spencer, Mayor Becky Campo and Councilman Sam Cuellar.
Campo said she wanted it to be an open discussion in a neutral environment in which people can feel free to speak without fearing retaliation. It will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Westside Resource Center.
"I want them to feel comfortable airing out any concerns they have about issues, so that they can tell us if our department is functioning properly or not," said Campo.
"I think it needs to start from the top. The police chief needs to be more proactive in talking to the community, and I don't see that yet," Campo said.
Law enforcement officials said they welcome the chance to explain how they do their job.
"It's not that we are stopping to harass anybody. We have an obligation to public safety," Christianson said.
"What I hope to gain is an opportunity for people to talk to me directly and have their questions answered, or to provide information so they have a better understanding of our job and the challenges we face," he added.
Most of the allegations that were raised involved teenagers.
Albertina Reynoso said her 15-year-old son and two of his friends were questioned by a deputy, who allegedly told her son, who was wearing red Patterson High School gym shorts, that he was on the wrong side of town.
Patterson resident Violet Wells said her teenage son was questioned by a deputy while playing basketball, and mentioned other incidents in which high school students were stopped while riding their bikes or walking around town. In another case, a group of friends said they were pulled over by a deputy, who they said yelled at them and used profanity.
Spencer said no formal complaints were filed with the department, but the incidents were investigated. The department didn't find wrongdoing by the deputies, Spencer said, but admitted better communication with parents could have helped.
"Parents should have been notified in two cases. Had we been proactive, they would have had a full accounting of what occurred and their issues would have been satisfied without having to go in front of the council meeting," Spencer said.
Patterson has seen a surge in gang activity in the past two years as teenagers with gang ties have moved to the community from the Bay Area, Spencer said. That has created challenges for deputies and how they deal with Patterson's youth, he said.
A forum to discuss law enforcement in Patterson will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Westside Resource Center, 118 N. Second St., Suite D.
Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 238-4574.