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Outside Factors Raise Stakes in Fight Against Gangs

Santa Barbara struggles to find and fund programs for at-risk youth while violence forces police to step up response.

Santa Barbara’s effort to intensify its gang crackdown while at the same time providing outlets for alternatives was reflected Friday in a pair of presentations to the school board and the City Council that gave off a sort good-cop, bad-cop contrast.

Playing the good cop at the biannual joint meeting between the two bodies was Nancy Rapp, the city’s parks and recreation director, who announced a plan to boost sagging student participation in after-school intramural sports. The program, which largely targets students at risk of engaging in illegal behavior, has lost nearly 25 percent of its students in one year.

“This program really needs to have a fresh look,” she said.

Playing the bad cop was police Chief Cam Sanchez, who said the Police Department has gotten tougher on crime in the past year, following the gang-related murders of two teenagers.

“The reality is, we’re not going to save them all,” Sanchez said. “If you commit a crime in the city of Santa Barbara, we’re going to come after you.”

Santa Barbara, which is home to roughly 17,000 children, has about 11 known gangs, and 750 gang members — 100 of whom are considered “hard core,” officials say.

Rapp attributed the steep decline in the junior high after-school program to how today’s youth in Santa Barbara seems less interested than ever in joining intramural leagues for basketball, football, soccer and volleyball.

In an effort to boost participation, she said the program, with the help of local nonprofit agencies, this spring will introduce other after-school activities, such as hip-hop dancing, martial arts, track and magazine production.

Meanwhile, she said, money is an issue for the program, which is funded jointly by the city and school district, and costs a total of $147,000 annually. Even before California’s financial crisis worsened this year, the school district had to lessen its contribution to $40,000, from $60,000.

Now, due largely to the state budget woes, the Santa Barbara school board is facing the unhappy prospect of having to cut $4 million from its $93 million discretionary budget this spring. It is unclear whether the $40,000 earmark for after-school activities will be among the many programs on the board’s chopping block.

The city of Santa Barbara, too, is looking at cutting back its contribution, to $70,000 next year from $85,000 this year. Luckily, Rapp said, the city of Goleta is stepping up to increase its contribution to $10,000 next year from $7,000, and possibly to $27,000 annually afterward.

“We are very pleased about that support,” she said.

In his report, Sanchez said 14 of his 140 sworn officers work full time combating gang violence.

“We do gang sweeps,” he said. “Basically, we go hunting. We gather up our troops, get a few sergeants, and in a matter of minutes, the task is over.”

Sanchez said a new bicycle task force unit has aggressively gone after gang members, making 33 felony arrests since May. During that time frame, a street-enforcement crew of six has made 71 felony arrests, which Sanchez said included assaults with baseball bats, stabbings with knives, and rapes.

“All gang members,” he said of the arrests.

Sanchez was unapologetic about his tough stance.

“People say we are targeting Latinos,” he said. “Well, we only have Latino gangs in the city of Santa Barbara for one, and 100 percent of those victims are Latino.”

The sweeps, he added, have been embraced by the community.

“The phones have rung off the hook — not one complaint,” he said. “Comments like ‘It’s about time’ are said. … So we’re doing the right thing.”

Sanchez also noted the positive results that come from the after-school activities, as well as community policing and the Police Activities League mentor program.

But, he said, “the ones that are committing the murders and the assaults, quite frankly, they don’t sign up for this stuff.”

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