Whatever you do, don’t call Gus Frias the South Coast’s anti-gang czar; it’s a label he rejects. Instead, Frias—who speaks with an almost evangelical optimism and a booming down-home street folksiness—describes himself as “an educator who can take any negative and turn it into a positive.” At least, that’s what he told a room packed with three mayors, three city administrators, one county supervisor, a host of major movers-and-shakers, and a handful of ex-gang members involved in a sprawling collaborative effort to keep a lid on gang violence throughout the South Coast.
Frias was hired about two months ago—to the tune of about $100,000 a year—to better coordinate the sprawling multitude of public and private agencies that currently provide services that could be categorized as gang intervention, prevention, or enforcement. To a certain extent, his role will be akin to an orchestra conductor conducting without a baton. Frias will have no direct authority over any of the agencies with which he works. But it will be his job to illuminate gaps in services now directed at active street gang members, better train the agencies involved, and to more efficiently harness the considerable resources already being brought to bear. “We have all the ingredients,” he told the small crowd gathered at the downtown library’s Faulkner Gallery. “What we have to do is maximize our inter-agency collaboration.” But mostly, it will be Frias’s function to keep everyone focused. He got a warm reception from Supervisor Janet Wolf and Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, who said she expected that under Frias, the anti-gang coalition would try some experimental efforts and maybe ruffle some feathers. “If it was easy, this thing would have been solved by now,” she said.
Frias started the meeting off with a decidedly low-tech video that some in attendance found hokey and amateurish. But one of the ex-gang members around the table, a 19-year-old transplant from Santa Maria now attending City College, said its depictions of gang violence were “for real.”
Frias came of age in the 1970s, growing up in gang-riddled East Los Angeles and graduating from Garfield High School. While he himself never was involved with gangs, Frias said he lost his best friend to gang violence in 1972. That background, coupled with a direct style, should stand him in good stead with gang members and their families. His advanced degrees from Harvard and USC should help him navigate Santa Barbara’s white-collar world of nonprofits and bureaucracies. And his experience in the labyrinthine world of the Los Angeles County Office of Education—where Frias cut his teeth designing school safety programs—should prove invaluable when it comes to securing shrinking government funds.
But first, Frias has to make the transition from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, two communities with drastically different gang cultures. “In L.A. we have 1,000 gangs with one gang killing a day and 10 drive-by shootings a day,” he said. “And that’s considered progress. It used to be there were two killings a day and 15 drive-bys.” By contrast, the South Coast experienced two gang-related killings last year. “I know it’s trite, but even one killing is one killing too many,” Frias said. “If it’s your child, it doesn’t matter how many others there are.” One of Frias’s first orders of business is getting a handle on just how big the South Coast gang problem actually is. Local law enforcement agencies collect data differently, and some in the gang intervention community worry that the methodology deployed is imprecise and exaggerated. A rough estimate, though, shows there are 130-160 gang members on the South Coast who have been convicted on gang enhancement charges.
Frias will be under pressure to show results. Although Santa Barbara police report that gang-related felonies dropped by 14 percent last year—though gang-related misdemeanors increased significantly—public impatience with gang violence is clearly growing. In several high-profile incidents, gang members attacked individuals with no gang affiliation. Neither of the victims in last year’s two gang-related killings, for example, were gang members.
There’s no shortage of competition and suspicion among the many groups that purport to address gang violence throughout the South Coast. For Frias to keep them moving in the same general direction will require the proverbial ability to herd cats. Already, some community groups—dubious about any effort backed by City Hall—have highlighted the crucial role played by churches and the faith-based community in successful anti-gang efforts in Oxnard. At the table to greet Frias was Father Rafael from Our Lady of Guadalupe. When Frias asked the 35 movers and shakers assembled for their thoughts, Fr. Rafael replied, “I’m sick and tired of doing funerals. I don’t know anymore what to tell the mothers,” he said. “Please God, let us work together.”