Since 2004, when Santa Rosa voters approved Measure O, taxpayers have spent more than $7 million on gang prevention and intervention programs.
The goal has been to undermine the growing influence of gangs by supporting programs to reform existing gang members and keep at-risk youth from being drawn to gangs.
To ensure the programs were effective, the city’s gang-prevention officials vowed to work with the Santa Rosa Police Department to closely track gang crime statistics in the city.
Members of the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force committed to “develop a standard statistical reporting format” allowing “community decision makers to quickly and easily understand and interpret gang-related criminal data and trends.”
Seven years into the program, that hasn’t happened.
As a result, the issue of the effectiveness of anti-gang efforts — and the need for a $119,000-a-year gang czar — is likely to dominate Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm will brief the council on how he measures the success of the department’s gang crime strategy.
The Police Department tracked gang crime statistics using one system before 2007, stopped doing it at all from 2008 to 2010 because of budget cuts, and now is using a new method that cannot be compared to previous years.
The changes have made it impossible for the department to say with certainty whether gang crime, which city officials vowed to cut in half by 2010, is up or down.
That troubles Councilman Gary Wysocky, who says the public deserves clear data about whether or not the city’s gang-prevention programs are working.
“We’ve spent millions of dollars and we have no idea to what effect?” Wysocky said last week.
The debate also will offer a preview of what could become an issue in the upcoming election cycle between two political rivals. Mayor Ernesto Olivares, a former police officer who once headed the city’s anti-gang efforts, and Wysocky, who has expressed concern about the growing costs of police services, are both up for re-election this fall.
Olivares said the city’s programs are successful and are being regularly measured to ensure the city’s safety net for kids is as strong as possible.
Gang crime statistics are one tool, but budget cuts approved by the council limited the department’s ability to gather and analyze that data. The recent return of that capability is cause for celebration, not criticism, he said.
“That’s why I’m excited to have it back, because it’s going to help us do things we said we were going to do,” Olivares said. “It’s the missing piece.”
In 2003, in response to rising gang violence, the city established the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force, a partnership of city and county agencies, schools and nonprofit groups.
The goal was to get away from enforcement-only gang strategy in favor of a communitywide approach that would foster nurturing, supportive environments for kids and counter the lure of gang life.
The following year, voters passed Measure O, a 20-year, quarter-cent sales tax whose funds are divided 40 percent to police, 40 percent to fire and 20percent to gang prevention. The tax originally was projected to raise about $7 million a year. The recession caused that figure to drop below $6 million in 2010, but revenues have since rebounded somewhat.
The gang-prevention program is run out of the city’s Recreation, Parks & Community Services Department. It includes after-school programs, grants to organizations for youth and parenting programs focusing on gang and antiviolence education, and programs for kids and job training and social programs for adults through the city’s Neighborhood Revitalization Program.
After the departure of the first program manager in 2006, Olivares, who was then a police lieutenant, took over the position. Members of the task force talked up the city’s “state of the art” gang-prevention program and promised it would cut gang violence in half by 2010.
But defining what constitutes a gang crime was challenging, Olivares said. “Back then and even today we were grappling with this definition of what is a gang crime?”
The task force and Police Department settled on a definition that is broader than what a community facing far more serious gang crime issues, like Salinas, might use, Olivares said.
The definition reached after “extensive research” remains the following:
“A gang-related incident is defined as an incident where there is a reasonable suspicion that the individual who is involved with the incident has been or is currently associated with criminal gang activity, or where the totality of the circumstances indicates that the incident is consistent with criminal street gang activity.”
The department has struggled with how to collect the new statistics, which unlike other crimes such as homicide and burglary, it is not required to track.
Crime analysts initially needed to manually review all of the department’s 20,000 annual crime reports to ensure the data were being properly captured.
The goal was to establish a baseline, follow results over time and report them to the task force and the public, according to the task force’s 2008-2012 strategic plan.
For a time, the task force was receiving such reports. But budget cuts in 2008 forced the department to eliminate the crime analyst position in favor of preserving officers on the street, Schwedhelm said.
“We made a strategic decision … to keep the uniformed cops out on the street because that’s what the public wants,” Schwedhelm said.
The loss of that position meant there was no one to manually gather the data. Officers were still supposed to mark reports involving gang incidents with a G, but they weren’t always doing so, said Schwedhelm, who became acting chief in 2009.
Following the reinstatement of the crime analyst position in 2010, a new system was implemented that gave all 83 patrol officers additional training about when to mark gang-related incident reports. Crime analysts and gang crime experts vet the reports, adding or removing gang designations after additional review.
The result is a new set of data that cannot be compared with previous years because the methodology has changed, Schwedhelm said.
The inability to compare current statistics with previous years is “totally frustrating,” he said.
For example, because the new system only captures some of the gang crime incidents from past years, looking strictly at that data shows eye-popping increases in gang crime. A recent report distributed to City Council members appears to show total gang-related crimes up 346percent between 2007 and 2011 and violent gang crimes up 274 percent.
But that same report strongly warns against making year-to-year comparisons for “conclusions or policy decisions.”
Schwedhelm said he is confident the new statistics are better and will provide a baseline from which future years will be compared.
“It’s the right thing to do. We had to start somewhere,” Schwedhelm said. “We’re more accurately capturing the reality of what’s going on out on the street in Santa Rosa.”
Wysocky remains skeptical. If the years aren’t comparable, the methodology is either wrong now or was wrong then, he said.
“You can’t have it both ways,” he said.
Absent clear data, Wysocky said he doesn’t support spending more money on the gang-prevention manager position, as the human resources director is proposing Tuesday to the council.
The city wants to increase the salary by as much as 20 percent, to just shy of $119,000 a year, saying the job responsibilities have grown.
The first person to hold the job was Dawn Dolan, an educator from Michigan with no gang-prevention experience. She made $68,940 a year. Olivares replaced her in 2006, keeping his $130,080 salary, which grew to $146,540 by the time he retired two years later.
The city acknowledged that the position was “overfilled” while Olivares, a 30-year police veteran, held the post. After Olivares retired, Marc Richardson, director of Recreation, Parks and Community Services, requested the human resources department study the job responsibilities and set a salary.
It concluded the position should be set at a deputy director-level salary, with a ceiling of $129,840. That was rejected by the council in 2009.
Ellen Bailey, who was running the department on an interim basis, was later promoted to the manager post at a lower salary. By the time she retired late last year, she was making $99,730 a year. She has been rehired as a part-time employee until the position can be refilled, said Fran Elm, the city’s human resources director.
Wysocky has asked whether the job could be filled as a lesser-paid coordinator position.
“I have seen nothing that justifies this type of salary for this position,” he said.
Bailey said that as part of the job, she traveled across the state and worked closely with police chiefs, school superintendents and others mapping out broad policy directions, responsibilities that are clearly at the level of a deputy director.
On the issue of accountability, she said she finds it “bizarre” for people to expect such a complex problem to be measurable with a single statistic.
The task force exhaustively analyzes its programs, including surveying participants, using third parties to assess the effectiveness and writing detailed reports, Bailey said. It regularly tracks statistics such as truancy rates, graduation rates, school API scores and the number of youths who identify themselves as being in a gang, Bailey said.
“We know if those things are going in the right direction, we are going in the right direction,” she said.
One such statistic is key in her mind — youth violence. It’s down 32 percent between 2005 and 2010. Another statistic shows juvenile weapons offenses are down 52 percent over the same period.
Even though the Police Department wasn’t able to consistently gather gang crime data, the program is still accountable to the public, she said.
“The gang problem is communitywide and it’s complex,” she said, “and evaluating ways to measure our success is complex also.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org.