South Modesto sharpens its law enforcement 'tool'

Crime is seasonal in the unincorporated areas of south Modesto, and sheriff's officials say fall and winter give residents a chance to beef up Neighborhood Watch programs while criminals hibernate.

Street gang violence and burglaries don't disappear, but the number of crimes falls slightly as the overnight temperatures dip and the rain keeps most people off the streets, neighborhood residents and sheriff's officials said.

Criminals simply stay indoors when it's cold outside, said deputy Tim Reed, who oversees Neighborhood Watch programs for the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department.

He said watch groups in south Modesto should use the time to recruit members, establish neighborhood blight removal efforts and prepare for the increase in crime in spring and summer.

"During some of our Neighborhood Watch meetings I give the example of crime prevention being a spear," Reed said. "Law enforcement is merely the sharp point at the end. The point is useless without the remainder of the shaft to support it.

"Active, involved citizens represent the support shaft. By combining the two, we have created a very effective tool."

Some south Modesto neighbors were hard at work recently, collecting piles of garbage from residents at the Modesto Revival Center on Midway Avenue, just south of East Hatch Road and west of Highway 99. This group, hoping to restore residents' pride of ownership, held a similar event in June.

Gangs, burglaries, blight and narrow streets without sidewalks produce a demoralizing image, said Benito Torres, the Neighborhood Watch block captain.

"We would like to live in a better place, but we can't afford it," said Torres, who has lived on Atlantic Drive for 42 years. "We just have to work on improving this neighborhood."

This watch group was organized eight months ago, replacing one that deteriorated when some members moved or lost interest. It covers a residential area of about 20 blocks and more than 200 homes. The neighborhood is just one of many throughout the county the Sheriff's Department works with to revitalize watch group efforts.

Crime prevention officials such as Reed were unsuccessful in trying to organize new watch groups in south Modesto.

"I understand many are intimidated by the numerous gang factions in south Modesto," Reed said. "I also understand their frustration at times with our response times and perceived lack of results."

Reed said these issues that keep people home and refusing to get involved can be overcome. Watch groups can help investigations reach positive results, he said.

"Gang leaders or 'shot callers' can be identified, investigated, arrested, prosecuted and eliminated," Reed said. "Response times would immediately improve because of the lower call volume and less heinous types of crimes being reported."

Outreach worker hears about crimes

When sheriff's officials failed, Maria Alicia Chavira was able to recruit neighbors to volunteer.

Chavira is a neighborhood outreach worker for Ceres Partnership For Healthy Children. She knocks on doors to help residents find resources to better their lives.

In talking to them, Chavira heard many stories about the crime-plagued neighborhood.

She brought residents and sheriff's officials together to revive the dormant watch groups. Her Spanish-speaking skills helped her gain their trust.

"I told them in Spanish, so they would really understand me," Chavira said. "I told them, 'Don't be scared. If you don't do anything, nothing will change.' "

That seemed to motivate Torres and his neighbors. The group has 30 members and the hope is to reach 100 before spring, when crime starts to climb.

A 70-year-old retiree, Torres took the block captain job because nobody else wanted it, and he's been a catalyst for the Neighborhood Watch effort.

"I'm not going to give up," Torres said. "We have about 200 homes in this area, and we should have at least 75 percent involvement. We would like to reach out to everyone."

Jerry Cooper, a sheriff's volunteer, works with Torres' group and others across the county. He said the department hopes to engage residents by holding informational meetings about law enforcement, safety concerns and health issues.

He said the monthly group meetings at the Modesto Revival Center give residents a chance to tell sheriff's officials about problems in their neighborhood.

"We told them we can help, but we can't do it for you," Cooper said.

Recently, the neighbors filled five large garbage containers with broken furniture, tires, landscaping waste and other trash.

For residents such as Leandro Duran, throwing out the garbage is the first step toward eliminating the crime plaguing his neighborhood.

"I want others to want to take care of their own homes," Duran said in Spanish. "This is going to benefit everyone and produce some neighborhood pride. If they care about their homes, then maybe they won't tolerate the crime that seems to stick around."

Must do it 'on our own,' resident says

In 1980, Duran emigrated from Michoacán, Mexico, to San Jose to find work. His wife and daughter soon followed.

In 1998, his family moved into a rental home in Modesto's airport neighborhood. Duran wanted to purchase his home, so he moved to south Modesto, where the most affordable housing was available.

Duran, 56, has lived on Atlantic Drive for five years and works at a can label manufacturing plant in Ceres.

"I may not have much, but it's mine, and I work hard to keep it looking nice," Duran said. "As immigrants, we're always criticized for being a burden on this country and that we never step up to do our part.

"Well, I came to this country to work. We need to do better for ourselves and on our own."

Like many other south Modesto residents, Duran was reluctant to volunteer for community improvement groups. He said residents have little trust in government officials and the language barriers makes volunteering much more difficult.

Duran speaks very little English and the officials he encounters usually speak very little Spanish.

He said his reluctance to volunteer disappeared when he rode along with sheriff's deputy Noel Vento during a patrol of south Modesto.

"I realized there were too few deputies patrolling the entire county, which means there are much less patrolling our neighborhood," Duran said. "As neighbors, we need to get together and help each other out. We need to be united, because the gangs and the criminals are definitely united against us."

That is the type of message Duran wants to send to his neighbors and officials who have asked for a resurgence of efforts from south Modesto residents.

Reed said residents who do not become involved are saying that they are "satisfied with the status quo and will allow the criminal factions to prosper."

"Without Neighborhood Watch involvement," Reed said, "the crime levels will increase and the nature of the crimes will become more violent."

Residents in the unincorporated areas who would like to participate in Neighborhood Watch can call Jerry Cooper at 558-8930 or 558-4147.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.