Maria Cruz, like others in her west Modesto neighborhood, is wary about giving police information about gangs. She said she and others worry about retaliation if they're seen cooperating with law enforcement.
"You don't know what can happen," Cruz said in Spanish. "Shots start firing pretty easily down here, and you don't know whether they'll target you or your kids."
She lives on Vine Street near a home where Modesto police broke up a party attended by Sureño gang members last week. Officers seized loaded guns and arrested nine people on various weapon charges at the party.
Cruz said she wants to help police tackle the gang problem, but she wants to do it in a safe manner. Now, she can.
The Modesto Police Department has launched a gang hotline, where residents can provide tips about gang activity anonymously. The department's gang investigators will use the tips to stay ahead of the violence.
Investigators hope the hotline will give residents a way to report continuous gang activity, rumors of impending gang violence and previous criminal gang activity without fear of retaliation.
"This is geared toward learning what the neighbors are hearing about possible gang activity," said Sgt. Brian Findlen, a Modesto police spokesman. "The pulse of the neighborhood, so to speak."
The idea of a gang hotline was suggested to Modesto City Councilwoman Kristin Olsen by a resident. Olsen relayed the suggestion to Modesto police officials, who worked for the next few months on getting the hotline ready.
After learning of the gang hotline Thursday, Cruz said she feels a lot safer calling police. She said residents need to do their part and help police.
"If we don't start defending ourselves, this will never go away," said Cruz, 41. "That's what police are telling us, for us to stand up for ourselves."
The 24-hour hotline is answered by a police technician or a recording. The technician can ask callers about specific details from the suspected gang activity.
Residents don't have to provide their personal information when they call, but leaving some contact information could be useful to an investigator who has some follow-up questions, Findlen said.
Police want information such as the time and date of an incident and the names of suspected gang members involved in the disturbance. Officers also are seeking descriptions of gang colors, names of gangs, vehicles and their license plate numbers, and how many people get involved in an incident.
"The intent is to give as much information as we can get," Findlen said. "We can add to gang intelligence we already have. It doesn't take much to help us."
These small pieces of information are vital to ongoing investigations and can also help prevent violence.
Robert Jamison, 33, lives down the street from where a 10-year-old boy was killed in late July by stray gunfire from a gang-related shooting at his home in the La Loma neighborhood.
Jamison said he would call the hotline if he knows about gang activity in his neighborhood, but he hopes residents give accurate information.
"It sounds like a good idea," Jamison said. "But what if they start making false accusations, and they start getting people in trouble?"
Findlen said information from the hotline will be gathered and analyzed by the department's Gang Investigations Unit, which is composed of officers who focus on solving gang-related crimes.
The investigators cross-reference the tips with other reported gang activity in that area and search for links.
The tips will also be shared with the department's Street Gang Unit made up of officers who provide enforcement and a visible presence in gang-infested areas.
Unlike the Crime Stoppers hotline, the gang hotline will not offer a cash reward. Substantial tips about violent gang-related crimes, however, may be referred to Crime Stoppers for reward consideration, Findlen said.
Manuel Sandez, 60, said he doesn't need any extra incentive to report gang activity. His neighborhood is a stronghold for the Norteño gang, where criminal activity is a common occurrence.
His home sits in a south Modesto neighborhood just north of West Whitmore Avenue within a gang injunction zone, where some gang members have a curfew, can't wear gang colors and must follow other restrictions.
The injunction is a civil lawsuit used by Stanislaus County authorities to limit activities of specific gang members in the neighborhood. Authorities are counting on residents to report gang activity so they can make arrests.
Sandez routinely has to clean up the gang graffiti spray-painted on the mailboxes in front of his house. He said he is not deterred by gang members' intimidation, and he will use the hotline.
"I would call the police," Sandez said. "I don't care who knows or what they think about me calling."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.