WATSONVILLE -- Gang intervention and prevention will take center stage at an April 27 community meeting at EA Hall Middle School.
The meeting comes at an important time, because Watsonville Police Chief Manny Solano said his department is noticing a trend in the city.
Recent alleged gang-related crime — such as the stabbing of Brandon Gil, 21, who was attacked at Miramar Sports Bar on Main Street the night of March 31 — seem to be occurring around establishments serving alcohol, Solano said.
“We are noticing a trend where alcohol and violence seem to be connected,” said Solano. Solano says that businesses are not inviting gangs, but are being targeted by gangs who want to “hold court” at a particular location. This attracts rival gangs and instances of gang infighting to the area, he said.
Solano said there are a number of ways local businesses that sell alcohol can get involved in anti-gang measures, including telling law enforcement if they see patrons wearing colors or making gang calls. The police department will also hold an upcoming free workshop on how to be a responsible alcohol merchant.
Gang activity is notoriously hard to predict and once a gang crime is committed, one of the toughest to investigate due to the gang code of silence, Solano said. At any given time, Solano has a minimum of 10 police staff working on gang related activity.
At the April 27 meeting at EA Hall Middle School, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Migrant Education department and Watsonville Police Department will offer tips on how families can identify gang behavior and keep gang activity from infiltrating their neighborhoods and their homes.
Also distributing information at the event will be Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance (PVPSA), a local nonprofit that works closely with the school district, law enforcement and the county probation department in helping youth and their families address any gang issues.
According to PVPSA CEO Jenny Sarmiento, family support and community involvement are key factors in preventing and suppressing gang activity.
“A lot of research shows you can’t just provide individual counseling to keep someone from being in a gang — you need the community and family involved in the process,” Sarmiento said.
PVPSA provide youth and their families with group counseling, referrals to health and human services, support in developing a family plan and parenting classes. The goal is to create a support structure that helps youth complete their education and engage in positive activities.
Diversion programs such as the Watsonville Police Department Police Activities League (PAL) are important in exposing youth to alternative pursuits that keep them occupied.
“Youth need to experience things outside their area and outside the influence of other gang members,” Sarmiento said.
Solano recognizes the importance of working with organizations such as PVPSA in stemming the tide of gang activity in Watsonville.
“In the 1980s, we had partnerships with groups like the Boys & Girls Clubs, but now community initiatives go a lot deeper,” he said.
A special joint session of the Watsonville City Council and Santa Cruz City Council met April 3rd to discuss the various gang prevention and intervention efforts in operation throughout the county. According to Solano the work done by community organizations is necessary in addressing multi-generational gang recruitment –where young children are pressured into joining a gang by older family members and friends.
“Gang members do not drop out. They are phased out,” Solano added.
Watsonville is attacking the gang issue on several fronts:
• The City of Watsonville Parks and Community Services Department and PVPSA run the Contigo Program. The goal of Contigo is to provide 40 families with children in the fourth through seventh grades with tutoring, counseling, parenting classes and other services with the aim of reducing the risk of gang involvement.
• Police Activities League routinely serves more than 400 youth annually and provides educational, athletic, and other recreational activities that bring youth and police together in a positive light.
• Post Incident Team: Since its founding in 2008, the volunteer outreach group responds to neighborhoods soon after a tragic event has occurred to help bring peace, calm and resources to those traumatized by gang violence and other tragedies.
• Valor Program: A joint initiative between the police department and PVPSA, Valor works to suppress and prevent gang-related crime and intervenes with high-risk youth showing signs of gang involvement.
• Squires Program: Non-confrontational program aimed at juvenile awareness, brings delinquent youth and their parents to San Quentin Prison and exposes them to the realities of prison life.
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