Anti-gang program pushed despite Merced's money worries

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comNovember 24, 2012 

Residents and church leaders continue to call on city leaders to join a crime-prevention program, modeled on several efforts around the state.

The push to bring Operation Ceasefire to Merced started over the spring with a series of meetings between the City Council and the residents of south Merced.

"There is too much gang violence," said the Rev. Don Ramsey of St. Matthew Baptist Church. "There are deaths that are associated with these gangs that we can help to reduce by being visible, by keeping the gangs off the streets."

Under the program community leaders and local law enforcement reach out to specific individuals for intervention. At the same time, residents, specifically members of the clergy, conduct "night walks" in high crime areas in an effort to dissuade violence and crime, often with the support of local law enforcement.

"Ceasefire is civilian driven," said Police Chief Norm Andrade. "The citizens are the ones who are the driving force. Officers are there to offer assistance when people go into neighborhoods."

The program won't end all crime in the city, but it has proven successful in reducing gun violence among target populations, said Tom Amato, executive director with People and Congregations Together, a group working with a Ceasefire program in Stockton.

"It's different than a hot spot analysis, which a lot of cities do," he said. "It's actually centered around people -- who's mad at who, and what caused this homicide?"

There are several obstacles to implementation, most notably, funding. The program was proposed in the spring, but according to officials, full implementation could be more than a year away.

It's unclear how much the program would cost in Merced. In other cities money has been used to pay for police overtime and to hire a statistical crime expert to help focus the program's efforts.

The city cannot afford to pay for the program out of its general fund, said City Manager John Bramble.

"We're very supportive of the idea," he said. "The only issue that we have is making sure that we properly support the program. We have to have the personnel and the tools to accomplish what the community wants to do."

Money for the program likely will have to be raised with grants, something both the city manager and the police chief have said they are not responsible for.

A nonprofit has helped spearhead the effort, but it has said it expects to play only a supportive role in fund raising.

"Our job is to help (the city) secure more state funding, if they qualify," said Tisa Xiong, executive director of Merced Organizing Project. "Our major role is to make sure there's consistent communication, and people who work here are being trained and know what they're doing."

But the community can start the night walks without funding, Ramsey said. "That's not something that we're concerned about. They're putting the cart before the horse."

The project needs guidance from local authorities to focus community efforts, he added. "The police department has not mapped that out for us."

In an effort to push the dialogue forward, community leaders have set up a 10 a.m. public meeting scheduled for Wednesday at City Hall. Officials from Sacramento will be on hand to answer question about how their program is structured.

Operation Ceasefire started in Boston, where gang violence was heavily concentrated over specific geographic areas.

Over the past decade, the idea has been adapted to fit cities all over the country, including Sacramento, Oakland, Stockton and, most recently, Fresno.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at

(209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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