A story in Monday's Bee explained how Salinas is using a military-style intelligence-gathering method to combat its gang violence problem.
It's basically the same method the military has used in Afghanistan and Iraq, learning whatever it can on the ground about the people and their ties to family, friends, and religious and other groups. By gaining a better understanding of the cultures, they have made inroads to gaining the trust of the people whose cities and towns they occupy.
In Salinas, about 15 faculty members and students from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey are advising the city's police force on counterinsurgency techniques. What they've learned from trying to diffuse the violence between the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq might help in combating the violence between the Norteños and Sureños in California, where conventional enforcement is not working, desperate Salinas officials reasoned.
So you might wonder, with gang violence rampant in the Northern San Joaquin Valley as well, why not bring in the military to establish a similar program here?
Understand the Salinas effort doesn't involve soldiers in camouflaged uniforms patrolling the streets in tanks and Humvees. That would destroy any chance of relationship-building between the police and the people who live in the troubled neighborhoods.
"It comes up from time to time -- to use the National Guard," said Mike Harden, Modesto's interim police chief. "But when you need the National Guard, you're pulling out all the stops, when there's looting and rioting. That would send a terrible message of helplessness."
Instead, it's a two-front war of prosecution and prevention, the latter involving parents and children to develop a trust with the police.
Local agencies have been doing that for several years now, Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson insists. They simply use federal agencies other than the military, he said.
The Sheriff's Department, the Modesto police and other local agencies team with the FBI, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the U.S. Marshal's office under the banner of the Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force.
"We have crime analysts in the respective agencies," Christianson said. "We're already using technology as a resource to identify gang members and gang activity. We're already doing that."
The Stanislaus County district attorney recently initiated a program to use injunctions, in essence suing a street gang to curb violence in south Modesto.
Salinas endured seven gang-related murders in an 11-day period this year, and the murder rate in the city of 140,000 is three times that of Los Angeles.
"They have a much larger gang problem than we do," Christianson said. "Their crime rates are significantly higher."
That doesn't mean, though, that the local agencies couldn't benefit from an exchange of ideas if the Salinas program succeeds.
"It's got some promise," Harden said. "It's all about winning the hearts and minds" of the those who live in gang-infested areas.
It's clear that many families want to reclaim their streets, as evidenced two weeks ago when about 150 people -- 50 of them youngsters -- attended a meeting at the Apostolic Assembly First Church of Modesto. The meeting followed an October shooting that left a 16-year-old developmentally disabled boy dead from a stray bullet in what authorities believe was a gang-related incident. Others in the neighborhood where the shooting occurred believe the gunshots followed a fistfight.
No matter. Street violence is street violence. The victim, his family and the community paid a horrible price.
Violence has claimed 25 lives in Modesto in 2009, including 16 within the city limits. At least 11 of them have been investigated as gang-related.
The church will hold another meeting, this time involving educators, at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The purpose is to help parents understand and recognize the gang influences their children face at school, and the importance of communicating with their children and their teachers.
"We're trying to build strong families," pastor Martin Amador said. "But we're looking at a battle."
"We need to get the people in these neighborhoods to trust us as much as they fear the gang mentality," Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager said.
For certain, no single approach has worked so far. Gangs continue to grow. People continue to die. Neighborhoods continue to be intimidated.
No city wants to be the next Baghdad. Or Salinas.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdaysin Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee. com or 578-2383. The meeting will be at the Apostolic Assembly First Church of Modesto, 917 Sonora Ave.