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Fighting For Quality Of Life

California Neighborhood Takes Community Back From Gangs

Just when it seemed that all hope was lost, residents of one California community declared war against gang violence. Read their remarkable story here.

By: The National Sheriffs Association

Imagine a place so infested with criminal activity that the sound of gunshots was more prominent than the sound of children playing; where drive-by shootings were as commonplace as taking the dog for a walk; where families were too afraid to leave their homes for fear of getting caught in the middle of a violent clash between rival gangs. It all sounds too dramatic to be real, but, in fact, it was just that for residents of a Watsonville, CA neighborhood known as “Mona Lisa.” Thanks to the gangs that had taken over their community, this was their daily reality . . . until they joined together and said enough is enough.

Gang Stronghold

As far back as the 1960s, the City of Watsonville, CA had suffered from a serious gang problem between two rival gangs known as the Nortenos and the Surrenos. The Mona Lisa Neighborhood eventually became a stronghold for one. “When I first entered the police force eighteen years ago, I could drive by the Mona Lisa Neighborhood on any shift and see Surrenos gang members positioned in strategic locations to look out for intrusion from members of the Nortenos, the police, and other threats,” explained Sergeant Darren Thompson, of the Watsonville Police Department. In fact, the neighborhood became a hub for gang activity in the city. Though the Surrenos inhabited the neighborhood, the Nortenos would often congregate there. A larger, more powerful, and more financially-superior gang, the Nortenos not only had fire arms, but also vehicles, providing them with easy mobility and easy access to the Mona Lisa. As a result, they often came from their side of town, entered into the community tostart conflicts with the Surrenos, who were forced to remain more sedentary as a result of sheer economics. What this meant for residents was that not only did they have to contend with the gang members that lived among them, but also with a rival gang that regularly infiltrated their neighborhood. Needless to say, these residents lived in a constant state of fear.

“We saw several homicides, a lot of assaults with deadly weapons, numerous beatings, stabbings, and robberies, and lots and lots and lots of physical fights that occurred in the neighborhood,” said Sgt. Thompson. In fact, during one 18 month period, he made more than 500 solo arrests, and that was not an uncommon figure.

Recognizing the community’s dire need, the Watsonville PD began focusing much of its energy and efforts to curb the escalating problem. “I can recall spending a great deal of time in that area trying to prevent conflicts from breaking out and investigating those that did,” said Sgt. Thompson.

But investigating was no easy task. At first, residents were of little help to the police because they were simply too scared to cooperate. The thought of repercussions on the part of gang members who may find out that they divulged information was just too great. In spite of police presence, residents continued to live in fear, and they felt powerless to do anything about it. At that time, joining a Neighborhood Watch was out of the question. Accordingly, there were few, if any, organized groups at the time, and it showed.

Building Partnerships

The Watsonville PD recognized that residents living in the Mona Lisa Neighborhood and other similar neighborhoods needed more than just police presence; they needed a partner who would help to empower them to take back their neighborhood. Consequently, they began reaching out to community members in the hopes of establishing relationships with them. “NW groups aren’t formed just like that,” explained Mariaelena Tantalo, the Neighborhood Watch Manager for the City of Watsonville. “First there needs to be some communication between community members and police. In the case of the Mona Lisa Neighborhood, the police opened up an initial dialogue with residents, and this laid the groundwork for changes that would eventually take place.”

In large part, these changes would be perpetuated by the work of Tantalo and her staff who intensified their outreach efforts to the communities of Watsonville. “The Watsonville PD made some wonderful strides in ridding the community of gangs. What was missing was just a bit more continuity,” said Tantalo, whose position was created to stand in the gap and serve as a link between the community and City Hall. According to Tantalo, the largely Latino community was very suspicious of the police because of their experiences with law enforcement in their native countries. “Unfortunately, this negative view made it even more challenging for my team and the Watsonville PD to prove we had their best interest at heart,” said Tantalo.

But Tantalo met the challenge. She and her staff started with what she calls “Outreach 101.” “We held a number of community-building events that enabled us to get to know residents and enabled them a chance to get to know us,” said Tantalo. These events, says Tantalo, presented the perfect opportunity for residents to share their stories, their concerns, and their hopes for their neighborhood with her and her team, and just as important, with each other. In addition, Tantalo and her staff began conducting neighborhood development meetings and offering training, leadership skills development, educational workshops, and tips for helping residents to take control of their own lives.

“We recognized that a strong police presence would only go so far in creating a sense of safety and acting as a threat to criminals,” said Sgt. Thompson, “Forming relationships with community members and earning their trust was the breakthrough that was most needed.” He says Tantalo played an integral role in that process.

Fighting Back through NW

Before the idea of NW was introduced to community members, however, it was important that residents first understand that it was not the sole responsibility of the police to protect their neighborhoods. Rather, they also had to do their part. According to Sgt. Thompson, this is indeed one of the biggest hurdles law enforcement consistently faces. “In America, many people feel like their tax dollars should take care of all of their problems and they don’t think it’s their responsibility to get involved, especially when it comes to dealing with crime or problems in their neighborhoods,” said Sgt. Thompson. “In fact, many residents who have called us and asked for a solution to a community-related problem have rejected hearing that they, themselves, must be a part of that solution.” Sgt. Thompson says that educating these residents and bringing them together are keys to getting them involved and instituting change that will truly make a difference.

That is precisely what Tantalo and her team did. By getting residents to come out of their homes, meet with one another, and share their concerns and fears, they were able to help residents to recognize that they had so much in common. This interaction helped community members to realize that not only were they not alone, but that if they wanted the gang problem to come to an end in their neighborhood, they were going to have to take a stand. “The residents of the Mona Lisa Neighborhood came to the conclusion that either they were going to continue allowing gang members to run their lives, or they were going to have to work together to do something to make some changes and re-claim their neighborhood,” said Tantalo. From these initial community get-togethers, NW groups began to form, and residents got serious to standing up to gangs.

In fact, over the past several years, twenty-five NW groups have been formed in the City of Watsonville, and according to Tantalo, that number continues to grow. These groups meet on a regular basis for business meetings, at which an officer assigned to that specific group attends, answers questions, and provides information about any activity taking place. Tantalo says NW members also go through a specific training regimen consisting of four sessions that include NW basics, how to protect personal property, how to protect themselves, and how to identify gangs and drug activity. The city also offers additional educational training sessions on such topics as preventing identify theft, communicating effectively with the government, holding successful community events, and conducting effective presentations.

NW members have taken it upon themselves to organize events, as well. For example, they celebrate National Night Out and several holidays, including Halloween, Mother’s Day, and Christmas. “Each of the NW groups have parties on National Night Out, they find their own entertainment, they do their own barbecuing, and city officials make the rounds to each event,” said Tantalo. “All of Watsonville is jumping and dancing and playing every year on the First Tuesday in August. It’s a really great thing.” Tantalo says the events represent a wonderful opportunity for community building, and also send a signal to the “bad guys” that this is not a good place for them to be.

“Our NW members are truly amazing,” said Tantalo. “They not only call the police when they spot suspicious behavior, but they actually go to City Hall meetings and give presentations. They are extremely active, aware, and educated, and their communities have benefited as a result.”

Perhaps what’s most remarkable are the changes that have taken place in the Mona Lisa Neighborhood. Thanks to the persistence of community members in conjunction with the police and Tantalo’s staff, the neighborhood has undergone a complete transformation. Today, if you were to walk through the community, you’d see children playing; you’d see a new community center built at the site of a one-time drive-by shooting; and you’d see that residents are indeed living an abundant quality of life in a place where that once seemed like an impossible dream.

“There’s a strange phenomenon that occurs when you get people face to face with each other to meet on a common cause,” said Sgt. Thompson. “A sense of accountability is created in which people are compelled to do what they say they are going to. I believe it’s this type of accountability that is at the core of NW, and that’s one of the reasons it has been so successful in Watsonville.”