City’s Partnerships Reduce Crime, Gang Violence
by Michael Karpman
Municipal leaders in San Bernardino, Calif., are building partnerships with county and community allies to successfully reduce violent crime and gang activity both throughout the city and in targeted, crime-ridden neighborhoods.
As a member of the California Cities Gang Prevention Network, an initiative sponsored by NLC and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency with primary support from the California Endowment and California Wellness Foundation, San Bernardino is one of 13 cities working to develop innovative strategies that blend prevention, intervention and enforcement to reduce gang violence and victimization.
With leadership from Mayor Pat Morris, San Bernardino is seeing results through the Operation Phoenix initiative. The city is poised to augment these efforts after voters approved a revenue increase last November to direct more resources toward gang and crime prevention.
After seeing the city’s murder rate triple in seven years, Mayor Morris took office in 2006 with Operation Phoenix, a comprehensive 18-point crime-fighting plan, at the heart of his campaign platform. Operation Phoenix is a collaborative citywide strategy for combating crime and gang violence combined with a focus on the city’s most crime-besieged 20-block neighborhood.
“A citywide strategy is important because crime knows no geographic boundaries and we didn’t want spillover or displacement of crime to other areas of our city,” said Morris. “A neighborhood-based strategy was essential in this instance because our resources were limited and we needed to demonstrate to ourselves, our citizens and the city council that this multi-faceted program would do the job.”
Led by a partnership of Police Chief Michael Billdt, the city’s chief code enforcement officer and the San Bernardino County Children’s Network, Operation Phoenix began with the city surveying residents and getting to know them at neighborhood parties, hearing their concerns, cracking down on the most violent offenders and delivering services through volunteers and city teams. In conjunction with the stepped up suppression measures, these teams focused on cleaning streets, improving street lighting, removing graffiti and recruiting block-watch captains.
The city opened a youth center offering daytime and afterschool programs — ranging from sports and homework help to parenting and ESL classes — run by Parks and Recreation Department staff. These programs have already reached 3,800 youth.
More than 30 partners have been involved in Operation Phoenix, enforcing building codes, curfews, probation, parole, narcotics and truancy laws and in delivering child protection, public health, drug and alcohol and mental health services. The city and county share expenses, with local foundations and nonprofits contributing funds and volunteer hours.
A report by city and county officials last month highlighted the program’s success and cost effectiveness. The report found that violent crime fell 21 percent citywide and 38 percent in the target neighborhood in the last six months of 2006 compared with the same time period in 2005. Since the initiative began, there have been no homicides in the target area.
The city’s violent crime rate is now at its lowest point in a decade, translating to 2,100 fewer victims, and robberies and theft in the target neighborhood were cut by more than half. The report also found that after factoring in county contributions and city resources that would have been spent regardless of Operation Phoenix, the city spent $197,400 solely on the new initiative.
In addition, a January survey by criminal justice professors at California State University-San Bernardino found that residents felt safer and were less worried about being victims of crime.
“At its heart, Operation Phoenix is about collaboration,” said Morris. “In an era of limited public resources, the only way we can possibly be successful in addressing complex and deeply entrenched social and public safety issues is reaching out and bringing in new stakeholders, blending their assets and contributions with ours.”
A voter-approved revenue increase is helping the city deploy more resources toward crime and gang violence prevention. Last November, more than two-thirds of San Bernardino voters passed Measure Z, which raises the city sales tax by a quarter-cent for the next 15 years. The city will gain an estimated additional $5.6 million to spend on public safety each year.
Passage of this new measure has sparked heated debate among Mayor Morris and members of the city council regarding allocation of these new resources, with some councilmembers calling for an exclusive focus on law enforcement efforts and the mayor championing a more balanced approach that includes prevention and early intervention programs.
San Bernardino City Unified School District students have mobilized to push for more funding of prevention and intervention programs for at-risk youth with the new revenue. The students surveyed more than half of the district’s high school students and interviewed more than 300 parents and public officials.
Among the findings were that three quarters of young people had experienced violence in the community or at school, and nearly half reported being victims of violence. More than 80 percent said programs were needed to address racism, 22 percent of students wanted jobs and more than one-third said there were not enough afterschool activities.
Based on these findings, students prepared an action plan calling on the city to use Measure Z funds for afterschool and job training programs for youth, to develop a summer youth plan and to implement programs that address racial tensions in schools.
The students took these recommendations to a February City Council meeting, packing City Hall as student leaders joined clergy and other activists in providing testimony on the need for youth programs and describing their personal experiences with violence.
Additional momentum is building on other fronts. The county Department of Children’s Services is taking a new approach to child welfare through its “Family to Family” techniques. The county is assembling three-person teams of social workers, family members and community members in small geographic areas to promote stable family environments and stop the escalation of problems at home before removal of children is necessary.
The San Bernardino City Council recently voted to explore the impact of eliminating questions about criminal history on municipal job applications to promote reentry of people with criminal records.
Finally, U.S. Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) of San Bernardino County has sponsored a bill in Congress to create an interagency gang
prevention task force with representatives from the Departments of Justice, Education, Labor, Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services. The task force would focus on early childhood intervention, literacy, employment, at-risk youth intervention, community policing and community-based programs.
A companion to “Mynesha’s Law,” a bill sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Baca’s bill was inspired by the death of an 11-year old girl in San Bernardino from a stray bullet and by the success of Operation Phoenix.
At his recent State of the City address, Mayor Morris echoed his introduction of Operation Phoenix one year ago. “Suppression, intervention and prevention — these are the three pillars upon which we will rebuild our city out of the ashes of crime and violence and into a shining example of peace, prosperity and renewal.”
Source: National League of Cities.