Editorials

Death wish: Let’s bring down Modesto’s murder rate

Kelly Vargas, left, pays tribute to her son, Frankie Vargas, with her nieces Annastasia Alvarez, 9, right, and Dasia Lee, 12, middle, and other members of Vargas family during the annual lighting of the homicide victims’ memorial tree and candlelight vigil outside the Stanislaus County Courthouse in Modesto in 2013. Frankie Vargas was killed in a drive-by shooting.
Kelly Vargas, left, pays tribute to her son, Frankie Vargas, with her nieces Annastasia Alvarez, 9, right, and Dasia Lee, 12, middle, and other members of Vargas family during the annual lighting of the homicide victims’ memorial tree and candlelight vigil outside the Stanislaus County Courthouse in Modesto in 2013. Frankie Vargas was killed in a drive-by shooting. Modesto Bee File Photo

Is life cheap in Modesto?

You could draw that conclusion after looking at the city’s homicide statistics. The Bee reported on the city’s 27th homicide of 2015 last weekend, breaking the record of 24 set in 2012. And we still have seven weeks to go.

Of those 27, two were officer-involved shootings and three were ruled “justifiable.” That still leaves 22 classified as murders – and that’s a record, too, doubling the number of murders from just one year ago.

What’s going on? No one is sure. But around the nation, body counts are rising in other cities, too. Chicago has had more than 400 murders this year; St. Louis is up to 50 murders per 100,000 residents to lead the nation; Baltimore has had 289 murders, 33 per 100,000; New Orleans is at 38 murders per 100,000. The New York Times reported on Aug. 31 that Milwaukee, St. Louis and Baltimore have all seen 50 percent increases in murder.

Modesto’s actual numbers pale by comparison, but our increase is larger. Modesto’s murder rate has risen 100 percent in a year. For context, realize that violent crime is actually dropping in most places across the nation. Not here.

“I think people should be alarmed,” said police Chief Galen Carroll, who collaborated with community leaders on the failed Measure G, a sales tax measure that would have provided additional public safety funding. “We used to say, ‘At least we’re not Stockton,’ but that time is over.”

That’s because we’re in the same bloody boat. A report from the Violence Policy Center looked at deaths of people ages 10 to 24 and found a deadly corridor from Madera County to San Joaquin – with the four contiguous counties each ranking among the 10 most deadly in the state. Stanislaus’ murder rate was nearly double the state average, while Merced’s was nearly triple. The weapon of choice in 83 percent of those killings was a gun.

“It’s not a stat you want to have,” said Carroll, but “it’s just another indicator as a city and as a valley of what we face.”

Valley cities share more than just sad statistics – underemployment, gangs, high dropout rates, drug abuse, etc.

But that’s not what has driven Modesto’s murder jump, said Carroll. Instead, we’ve seen an increase in deadly domestic violence, with eight victims in two episodes. Remove those from the death list and the numbers come down to not quite “normal.”

What can be done to counter crimes of passion and depravity? Sadly, not much; such crimes are hard to predict and harder to stop.

“There’s no one answer on how you bring that down,” said Carroll. “We have a major drug problem in our valley – not just distribution, but drug abuse and alcohol abuse. You mix in the poverty and it creates a firestorm.”

Extinguishing this firestorm should be our top priority.

First, instead of throwing up our hands in despair, insist our leaders raise their hands with solutions. Modesto’s City Council will have three new members soon, including two who did not support Measure G – Mani Grewal and Doug Ridenour. We’re hoping they have better ideas; they must bring them forward immediately.

Second, it’s time to envision the Modesto we want rather than the Modesto we’ve got. Every resident wants to be part of a real community; we can all make it happen.

“Get to know each other,” said Carroll, who truly believes in the power of neighborhood watch groups. The chief says he and his captains will talk with anyone, anywhere, virtually any time about problems and solutions.

Third, organize to build that better Modesto we envision. Find ways to identify those struggling with serious personal problems or psychosis; support the victims. Then break down barriers between the public, police agencies and other public workers – something Carroll and City Manager Jim Holgersson have already begun.

For instance, police area commanders now meet with representatives of the city’s code enforcement, public utilities, parks and even street maintenance divisions, recognizing that all play a part in fighting crime.

But go further. Since Stockton, Modesto, Merced and every city in between share similar problems, the chiefs and sheriffs should convene regularly to truly share resources, not just information. For instance, police in both Modesto and Stockton are working to remove guns from the hands of criminals. Working together might be better than going it alone.

We agree that law enforcement needs more resources to fight these battles. As we redirect staff and funding to public safety, we will have to turn a deaf ear to those who complain that their needs are not being addressed. But we must deal with the most serious problems first – starting with murder.

It means putting a greater value on the things that truly matter – community, respect, security and life. Do that, and we add value to the lives of everyone around us.

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