With all the talk about gangs lately, one would think Santa Barbara is in midst of a crime epidemic. According to numbers shared by South Coast Task Force on Youth Gangs coordinator Saul Serrano at a conference on Monday and then again at the City Council on Tuesday, however, juvenile infractions seem to have decreased significantly in recent years.
In 2009, there were 368 juveniles on probation, 306 with gang terms and conditions. Thirty-five kids got off probation. Fast-forward to 2013, and those numbers are 296, 203, and 79. Deputy Chief Probation Officer Steven DeLira added that over the past 10 years, Juvenile Hall admissions have decreased by 45 percent, and staff for juveniles is down 37 percent (or 40 positions) while the total population of juveniles in the county has decreased by only 5 percent over that same time period. Numbers compiled by the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office also indicate that gang-related incidents have decreased over the past few years. The number of females with gang terms have flatlined countywide, DeLira told The Santa Barbara Independent.
In fact such numbers have been dropping statewide and nationwide for reasons that experts are still trying to sort out. Locally, the South Coast Task Force on Youth Gangs was formed in response to a 2007 spike in violence, including the stabbing of 15-year-old Angel Linares near Saks Fifth Avenue on State Street. Because of its location and fatal result, that particular stabbing galvanized city and community leaders and started Santa Barbara on a path to a proposed gang injunction and turned gangs into a political hot potato. When shopkeeper George Ied was randomly beaten to death by gang members — two of whom were sentenced Tuesday — on the Eastside in 2010, that only furthered the perception that gang activity was getting out of hand.
Individual participants in the Gang Task Force — including government officials — have complained since its inception that its meetings are full of sound and fury, but they accomplish little. Perhaps it didn’t help that the first coordinator was a blustery orator from Los Angeles who had trouble finding allies in Santa Barbara and whose theatrical presentations eventually felt incommensurate with his actions.
In contrast, Serrano is homegrown, understated, and quietly seems to have devised modest but concrete goals for the Task Force. Those include a centralized database for “at risk” youth that tracks data from Probation, schools, and service providers — initially the Community Action Commission. Such a database would aid both administrators — who would be able to identify gaps in service — and families who could log in to obtain information or seek referals for service. UCSB professor Jill Sharkey, who is heading up the effort, compares it to mint.com, a website that can track all of your financial accounts. Information-sharing agreements have been obtained from all of the participating agencies, but fundraising and software hurdles still stand between the concept and its realization.
Agencies and nonprofits are doing the work “in the trenches,” said Serrano, suggesting that progress needs to be looked at over time rather than after quarterly meetings. Still, at the City Council meeting Tuesday, Councilmember Bendy White urged Serrano to devise concrete goals and metrics for the Task Force so that both the public and potential funders can gauge its success. Serrano responded that he and a committee are in the process of doing so.
Serrano’s other goal is to foster more collaboration among the area’s many service providers who on the one hand radiate a generosity of spirit, but on the other have a history of climbing on each other’s backs fighting for grant money. To that end, he is attempting to arrange a monthly meeting. He also put together a summit on Monday that included high-profile speakers such as former sex slave and current social entrepreneur Carissa Phelps, and writer and former gang member Luis Rodriguez.
The most impactful speaker may have been homegrown police officer Adrian Gutierrez, who grew up on the Eastside and still lives there. He shared a number of personal stories that he had never told publicly before. For instance, he said one of his friends was shot by a cop when he was growing up, and now he is friends with that officer. He saw another friend be killed by a store owner, he said. He told the story of a rude Westsider with an incarcerated father he met at a truancy hearing. The boy, alone, called his cell phone the next Thanksgiving. When Gutierrez invited him over, he said he couldn’t be seen on the Eastside. So the officer met him at Shoreline Park, and they ate turkey off the hood of his car at midnight.
There seemed to be only four teenagers — not gang members — in the room, two representing the Academy of Healing Arts and two representing the Santa Barbara County Youth Corps. Any solution to gang violence, an emotional Luis Rodriguez said, would need to include the gangs themselves. “There is a way for us to work with law enforcement as members of the same family,” he said, soon before he broke into tears. “These tears,” he said, “are only because I want you to come alive.”