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September 6-13, 2006

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

What Gang Task Force?

On Saturday, Aug. 26, Nūz showed up at the Santa Cruz Police Department for a scheduled ride-along with the Santa Cruz gang task force at 10:30pm. The PD doors were closed at that hour, so I used the phone beside the door to let them know I was waiting outside. After 45 minutes a police officer came out of the building to inform me that the gang patrol was not on duty that night, but that I could reschedule the ride by contacting Lt. Rick Martinez, head of Santa Cruz Police investigations.

After Nūz gave Martinez a ring, he returned the call with disappointing news. He said the Police Department gang task force was not granting ride-alongs to the public, so as not to compromise the integrity of the program. According to Martinez, many press inquiries had been turned down.

During the recent "Town Hall" meeting that U.S. Rep. Sam Farr visited in Santa Cruz, City Council member Tony Madrigal appealed to Farr for federal assistance to remedy Santa Cruz's rate of gang violence. Farr suggested Madrigal meet with one of his representatives to discuss the possibility. On Aug. 24, Farr announced a Department of Justice grant for an anti-gang program awarded to the County of Monterey/City of Salinas Joint Anti-Terrorism, Street Violence and Gang Project (GTF), in the amount of $493,515.

Madrigal has made an appointment to meet with Alec Arago, District Director for Congressman Farr, in the first week of September. According to Madrigal, Arago raised the possibility of Santa Cruz going through the same process as Salinas and Watsonville to receive funding.

According to Rochelle Dornatt, Farr's Chief of Staff, Monterey and Salinas' road to money was neither short nor sweet, and the path for Santa Cruz might be just as hairy. "The money for the County of Monterey and the City of Salinas was a lengthy process," says Dornatt. "And it started with the congressman basically calling together a minisummit of sorts among all the federal agencies with county and city representatives to discuss the extent of the gang problem and the kinds of variables that contribute to the problem. And then when we had that laid out on the table, the feds provided the county and the city with their assessment of where federal monies might be made available to help combat the gang problem."

Farr also applied direct funding through his appropriation seat.

The process took between three and four years.

"We'll take a look to see if what we did in Monterey and Salinas we might be able to do for Santa Cruz," says Dornatt. "But these monies are not assured."

Countywide gang suppression efforts have reportedly resulted in 223 contacts and interviews with suspected gang members, 31 arrests and 10 citations within the last month.

But, as it stands, no press has ever witnessed the Santa Cruz task force in action, and the gang suppression program in Santa Cruz has little prospect of receiving government funding.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Does the gang suppression task force in Santa Cruz really exist?

Nūz called our friend, Zach Friend, who is not a sergeant (as routinely misidentified by the San Jose Mercury News but never again by Nūz) but a representative for the SCPD.

According to Friend, there is no task force.

"What about all those articles in the Sentinel?" I ask.

"They're all wrong," says Friend.

"When the Sentinel first interviewed Bob Lee [District Attorney of Santa Cruz County], he used that term, and that term to law enforcement agencies has a totally different definition than I think he realized," says Friend.

"A 'task force' means that you have dedicated staff that works for it and that's the only thing they do. That's what task forces are. But that's not the case [with the SCPD]," says Friend. "We don't have any people dedicated to this, it's just whoever comes in for overtime who deals with this issue."

So rather than a task force, the gang suppression effort in Santa Cruz consists of some people picking up overtime shifts on the weekends. Friend casually refers to it as "a collection of people going out and about." (Sounds like a picnic.)

"They're still doing regular enforcement activities, just with a focus on gang activities," says Friend. And why is the public prohibited from riding along with this "collection of people going out and about"?

"They're actually doing Criminal Intelligence Gathering, and Federal Law does not allow us to have non-law enforcement be there," says Friend. "I can't go, because I'm not an officer."

So, not even Friend who is not-a-sergeant has witnessed the thing that is not-a-task-force in action.

According to Friend, though the thing that is not-a-task-force has no official name, law enforcement refers to it internally as Directed Gang Enforcement.

Friend has recommended that Metro Santa Cruz might invent another name for it.

"But come up with something cooler than 'Task Force,'" says Friend.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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