Have Santa Rosa's gang-prevention measures been successful? It's hard to tell. Those in law enforcement, and many community leaders, will certainly tell you that efforts by police to reach out into the community to lower gang crime have been productive.
But the success is hard to quantify. Almost impossible, actually, given the way statistics have been kept — or not kept — by the city in recent years.
This proved to be a point of contention at last week's City Council meeting, particularly between Councilman Gary Wysocky and Mayor Ernesto Olivares, who from 2006 until 2008 was head of the city's Gang Prevention Task Force.
We're sure politics played a part in this flare-up, particularly given that both Olivares and Wysocky are up for election in the fall. But there's merit to Wysocky's complaint. We share his frustration that eight years after Santa Rosa residents approved Measure O, a quarter-cent sales tax that went to support police, fire and gang prevention, the city has no clear numbers to indicate whether the program is working.
Members of the Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force promised to "develop a standard statistical reporting format" that would make it easy to track "gang-related criminal data and trends." But that information is still not available.
Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm and Olivares offer a credible, but no less disappointing, explanation for why this is the case. Police routinely provided gang crime statistics to the task force from 2006 to 2008. But all that stopped when, due to budget cuts, the city eliminated staff and consolidated responsibilities. Keeping track of statistics was left by the wayside.
Why that decision was made is still not clear. Given the importance of these numbers, one would have thought that this change would have at least been worthy of a public City Council discussion.
Nevertheless, no numbers were kept from 2008 to 2010. Thanks to a federal grant, the city now has the resources to track the numbers, but the system being used is so different from the old, the numbers are essentially "apples and oranges."
Whatever the cause of this communication breakdown, we're persuaded that it's too late to go back now. We're also persuaded that Schwedhelm, who took over as chief in mid-2009, and his staff have come up with a promising new system for tracking the numbers going forward.
"It's state of the art what we are doing here," Schwedhelm told the Press Democrat Editorial Board.
In many ways, gauging the success of police intervention in the community will always be a bit amorphous. It has taken years for law enforcement and the public at large to embrace "community policing" — the idea that success begins not with an arrest but with having the resources and role models in place to persuade one child at a time not to join a gang in the first place. That alone is something to celebrate.
Nevertheless, the city has a responsibility to keep the public informed on how its efforts are going, and that includes tracking the numbers. We trust city officials will remain committed to keeping and reporting on these figures going forward and ensuring this new system will survive any budget cuts, changes in grant funding or or shifts in police leadership that may come. These figures may not tell the whole story about gangs, but they tell city residents an important part of the story — about their security and their community.