South Modesto neighbors divided on change since 2004 lawsuit

Nancy Nicholson, 60 and disabled by arthritis, spends most days at home. That gives her a lot of time to watch her Faustina Avenue block. Sometimes she sees things the Sheriff's Department should know about — suspicious characters climbing neighbors' fences, squatters in vacant houses.

But she hesitates before calling law enforcement. "If there's something going on where you need the sheriff, you go, 'Do I call?' " Nicholson said. "Because it's going to take so long for them to get here."

Residents in Nicholson's neighborhood and three others sued the county in 2004, claiming that slower response times from law enforcement were part of a pattern of discrimination against largely Latino county pockets embedded in south and west Modesto. They backed up their claims with data that showed it took almost two minutes longer to dispatch deputies to the plaintiffs' neighborhoods than to mostly white neighborhoods under the county's jurisdiction.

The county argues that it takes about one minute longer for deputies to arrive in Latino county islands than in white county islands.

The lawsuit looked finished in 2007, when a federal judge in Fresno dismissed the case, determining that the county was not intentionally discriminating against the Latino neighborhoods. But it re-emerged this year when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeal held that parts of the lawsuit should be tried.

Justices were particularly concerned about the emergency response times cited by the plaintiffs. "This court cannot agree (with the county) that a difference of one minute can be characterized as not making a meaningful difference when one is waiting for emergency personnel to arrive," the 9th Circuit justices wrote.

When the case goes back to court, the county will have to explain why it takes longer for emergency services to reach neighborhoods such as Nicholson's.

It's been five years since the lawsuit was filed. Some, like Nicholson, say they're still neglected by law enforcement. But others, even some who agreed with the lawsuit's claims when it was filed in 2004, say the years have brought positive changes.

Among them is Dianne Hernandez, who once lived at Pelton and Leon avenues, an area named in the lawsuit. Hernandez is a past president of Congregations Building Community, a community organizing group that works on neighborhood problems such as getting streetlights put in.

She remembers people complaining years ago that law enforcement ignored the west side. Residents felt then that police were afraid to come to their neighborhoods because they were so violent, Hernandez said. When Spanish-speaking residents called 911, they couldn't communicate with dispatchers and got frustrated when no one showed up. When law enforcement officers did arrive, they didn't speak Spanish.

Hernandez said she doesn't hear those complaints now. Residents are better informed, Hernandez said. They know they can ask for a translator when they call 911, and they know they have to give specific information to dispatchers if they want deputies to respond, Hernandez said.

Communication with responding emergency personnel has improved, too. "There seems to be more Spanish-speaking officers and firemen, and even the ones that don't speak it, they seem to know how to find someone that can help," Hernandez said.

Data from the Modesto Police Department suggest that Hernandez is right. In 2004, the department had 12 certified bilingual personnel. Now there are 33. Similar numbers from the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department weren't available.

Wayne Bridegroom, the pastor at west Modesto's Central Baptist Church, said he felt the claims of discrimination were well-founded when the lawsuit was filed. Now, he said, his opinion has "completely changed."

Bridegroom, a longtime advocate for the west side, said the system isn't perfect. But he's less critical than he once was because he understands more about how police prioritize calls. "(That) helped me understand why the response was delayed (when we call about) music at 11 at night that is literally shaking our windows," Bridegroom said. "To us, obviously it's very important, but to them, it's a much lower priority than a robbery in progress."

Bridegroom used to hear complaints about response times from west Modesto residents. But they dropped off after federal, state and local authorities created the Weed and Seed program in 2005, he said. The west Modesto crime-fighting initiative erased jurisdictional boundaries between police and sheriff's deputies. "I've seen Modesto Police Department cars on my street and I live in a county area," Bridegroom said. "We never used to see that. We used to see (officers saying) 'I'm sorry, that's in the county, and I can't deal with that.' "

Evidence in the lawsuit backs up what some residents have seen. Response times to Latino county pockets improved after the county was sued. But that doesn't mean the county wasn't discriminating, said attorney Brian Brosnahan, a Bay Area lawyer who is representing the Latino residents suing the county.

"The fact that it got better doesn't mean there's no more discrimination, because it continues to be significantly better for the white neighborhoods than it is for the Latino neighborhoods," Brosna-han said.

The Weed and Seed program is one of several improvement initiatives that have sprung up in plaintiffs' neighborhoods since the lawsuit was filed. In 2006, south Modesto got its own Municipal Advisory Council, a citizen panel that hears community concerns. Also that year, a collaborative of agencies formed the Latino Emergency Communications Council, which gives Spanish-language training on disaster preparedness. This year, law enforcement won a court injunction to crack down on gang-related behavior in a south Modesto neighborhood.

"It's not that there aren't still problems, but it is as if the people in the neighborhood are stepping up to the plate and saying this is our neighborhood and we're going to work together to take it back," Bridegroom said.

Community meeting

Last week's south Modesto MAC meeting at Harvest Hall off Crows Landing Road showed evidence of that trend. Residents shared concerns. Officials offered some answers. "Which gang is in my neighborhood?" asked a woman who didn't want visiting grandchildren to wear the wrong color. A sheriff's deputy gave a quick geography lesson on Modesto gangs.

But the MAC meeting also highlighted that the issues in the lawsuit are deeply entrenched problems that won't be solved with the stroke of a judge's pen. Fire, sheriff's and California Highway Patrol staff at the meeting spoke English; their audience spoke Spanish. A fire official reminded residents that they're served by city firefighters, not county. He asked residents to call if they see vagrants breaking into vacant houses, because the area has seen an uptick in fires at abandoned houses.

The fire official pleaded with residents to make their house numbers more visible so firefighters can find them faster, something that's hard to do when there are no curbs where addresses can be painted.

A CHP officer got a round of applause when he talked about issuing seven citations in one day at a particular intersection. Then he handed out surveys asking for feedback from residents. One question asked people to rate the CHP's response time. The officer apologized because the surveys were only in English.

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at or 578-2378. Follow her at