Gang violence has afflicted Stanislaus County for years, but its recent escalation has inspired a spike in fear from the community, with three people dead and three injured in gang-involved shootings in less than three weeks.
Just one of these shootings appears to have involved rival gangs, said Mike Harden, Modesto's assistant police chief. But all four had "gang underpinnings," with investigations pointing in each case to shooters with some relationship to "a gang lifestyle."
Though the solution to gang violence may be a long time coming, leaders in local community groups, government, law enforcement and education have been working together since late last year on a campaign they hope will make a difference.
The campaign is called Sin Colores, or Without Colors, said Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden. The name signifies "that we should be a community without the colors of gangs, that we treat everyone equally," he said.
The program is aimed at helping Latino families learn the early signs and risks of gang involvement, using a picture storybook and a film. Using images and television, organizers hope, will make the message impossible to miss.
"When we were creating this, we wondered, how do we get parents to not only get more knowledge but to get involved," said one of the project's creators, Virginia Madueño, a councilwoman in Riverbank. "This is a community-based approach. It's the Hispanic organizations, the churches and the community leaders that are going to run it. The community needs to address this key issue. With over 3,000 gang members being Hispanic, we know that we don't have a problem, we have a crisis on our hands."
Madueño described that storybook as similar to a comic book, with sketches that appeal to a younger audience. Part of the comic strip will be turned into a film, which organizers hope will be shown for free throughout Stanislaus County.
Other parts of the program involve televised town hall meetings, gang awareness presentations, a Web site and an 800 number that Spanish speakers can call to ask questions about gang activity and gang indicators.
Organizers had hoped to use state money to kick off the campaign, but the grant application was not approved earlier this year. Madueño said they will be looking to private foundations and endowments in the coming months to implement these ideas.
Using collaborative approach
The next step in the conversation about gang violence and Sin Colores will be a May 15 forum for policy-makers. Participants will watch a documentary about how gangs infiltrate communities, then discuss how, as a county, to approach the problem. What's key about the forum, Madueño said, is that city and county officials will sit down together to discuss the problem.
A collaborative approach is imperative, said Paul Seave, director of the governor's Gang and Youth Violence Policy Office. San Jose, for example, has become much safer and was able to decrease gang activity by creating a comprehensive plan with a long-term commitment.
"They've been working on this problem big time for more than 15 years," Seave said. "They took a citywide approach. They have community centers and gang intervention workers. Educators and law enforcement agents are really tied into all this, too."
One key to San Jose's approach, Seave said, is that the city did not peg its efforts to the crime rate, which can go up and down. Instead, it pursued a long-term strategy that the city revisits every two years to make sure the elements are working.
Providing alternatives for youths
Many people working on the gang issue in Stanislaus County agree that there aren't enough programs here for at-risk youth, either to help keep kids out of gangs or to connect them to counseling and jobs after they've left the gang lifestyle.
One more recently created program is the Youth Action Commission, a leadership group in which teens look at research and create workshops about problems they face, from drinking to gangs.
Patricia Segoviano de Pier founded the group last year after moving to Modesto from Los Angeles, where she worked in gang intervention for the Department of Parks and Recreation.
"You have to provide programs for those kids," she said. "If you're not, you're wasting money, wasting time and wasting effort. Kids see adults as inside of boxes, completely disconnected from what they're about. So, to change the system, it's like a mission impossible for us adults. The kids are creative. They see things beyond what we do. On a daily basis, they're dealing with crime and dealing with the pressure to join gangs, so they want to deal with the issue for real."
Police ask anyone with information about gang violence to call the Street Crimes Unit at 342-6190 or CrimeStoppers at 521-4636. Callers to CrimeStoppers can remain anonymous and may receive a cash reward.
Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2235.