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Enforcement, outreach aimed at Modesto's deadly gang problem

Acting Modesto Police Chief Mike Harden says he'll use a mix of stepped-up enforcement and outreach programs to tackle the growing problem of gang violence.

Harden unveiled his new strategy at Monday night's City Council meeting, where he sketched a grim picture of Modesto's gang problem.

Law enforcement believes the city is now home to as many as 10,000 gang members or associates, Harden told the council. Gangs have claimed nine lives in Modesto this year through September, up from six gang- related homicides in all of 2008. Drive-by shootings have increased, too, Harden said.

One of the homicide victims was a 10-year-old boy, shot to death by a stray bullet in the living room of his Santa Barbara Avenue home in July.

Harden said he's "greatly concerned" about the uptick in violence, but statistics tell only part of the story. Many gang- related crimes go unreported because gang members don't want the authorities to know about their activities, Harden said.

Also troubling are a few new trends officers have witnessed. Police are more likely to find deadly weapons when they arrest gang members. Officers have seen children as young as 8 involved in gangs. Young women are forming gangs.

Harden showed photos to illustrate his point. One pictured a group of young men in a cemetery, making gang signs with their hands. One was sitting on the ground with his arm around an infant in a baby carrier.

Harden said he'll use a multipronged strategy to combat the problem. It was the first detailed description of a gang-suppression strategy from a city leader since January 2007, when Mayor Jim Ridenour pledged to create a comprehensive crime-prevention committee modeled after one in Fresno. That effort did not come to fruition.

The new program includes:

Intervention and prevention programs.

The newest is Project SAFE, which stands for Striving for Accountability and Future Employment. Police won a $389,000 grant this year to start the carrot-and-stick style program.

Project SAFE forces gang members on probation or parole to meet with a team of representatives from law enforcement and community organizations. They'll be told that gang violence has to stop. If gang members don't cut down on violence, their gang will be singled out for special attention from law enforcement.

But if members want a chance to leave gangs behind, they'll be given the resources to do that, such as job training or GED programs. The message, said Modesto police Lt. Mike Harris, will be: "The violence has to stop, but we care about you and we want you to do better."

The program is modeled after Operation Ceasefire in Boston, which officials there credit with lowering the city's violent crime rate.

Modesto will hire a case manager who will link gang members who want to turn their lives around with serv-ices that could help them.

Police staff reorganization.

Harden has shuffled his staff to put scarce resources where they're needed most. He's created a gang investigations team that will work exclusively on gang-related crimes. Those investigators will do the footwork necessary to win "gang enhancements" when gang members are convicted of crimes -- a way of keeping them behind bars longer.

Harden has refocused the former street crimes unit into a team devoted solely to gang suppression. The unit includes two teams of six officers and one sergeant per team. "Their mission now is to interdict the gang problem seven days a week, 365 days a year," Harden said.

Listening from the audience Monday night were Ron Kossick and Sue Melrose, a married couple who lead a Neighborhood Watch group on their block. They said they wanted to hear Harden's presentation because they've grown increasingly worried about gang violence. Melrose said she grew up in Modesto, left for 20 years, then returned to a more violent city.

"It's still a nice place, but you can see a real change," Melrose said after the meeting. "Why let that continue?"

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at lalbrecht@modbee.com or 578-2378. Follow her at twitter.com/beereporter.

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