From The Herald-Monteray County
Guest commentary 04/17/2010
Eleven-year-old Mynesha Crenshaw was making dinner when a spray of bullets pierced the window, killing her and wounding her sister.
“There wasn’t even enough time for her to experience her first crush, learn how to drive or to go to the prom,” the San Bernardino Sun reported in November 2005.
Out of the horror of that shooting rose Operation Phoenix, a neighborhood-based initiative focused on the area plagued with San Bernardino’s worst crime and social statistics. The city reorganized its services into street teams made up of law enforcement, social workers, code enforcement officers, family service and public health nurses, school staff and the faith community.
It was an amazing success. Over three years, crime in the Operation Phoenix area dropped 45 percent.
Last month, in Salinas, 6-year-old Azahel Cruz Alcantar was killed by a stray bullet. We all struggle to put death in a comforting context, but Azahel’s death had none.
Deputy Police Chief Kelly McMillin shared with me his sense of outrage, pain and loss: “His parents are denied the comfort of knowing their son died, however tragically, for a ‘just cause’ in the defense of others, in the furtherance of justice, to escape some tyranny, anything! Azahel was murdered because he was unlucky to be caught between two groups of young men who simply don’t like each other, young men who … would doubtless be unable to describe the source or reason for their hatred of each other.”
Retired Judge Jonathan Price, in his guest commentary on this page March 27, implored us to make Azahel’s death “personal,” and he put his finger on the challenge: “Can all of us find some individual way to make a difference while also supporting communitywide efforts?”
As director of California City Gang Prevention Network, and for 20 years president of the National Crime Prevention Council, I have had the opportunity to work closely with Salinas officials. The death of Azahel could have disheartened them, but it won’t. I have been up and down California and have found that violent crime drops in cities where there is a comprehensive, citywide plan that blends prevention, targeted enforcement and intervention such as alternative schools, mentoring and Operation Ceasefire. A communitywide problem necessitates a communitywide, comprehensive strategy with clear objectives and a mechanism for tracking progress.
Salinas is also blessed to have CASP, the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace. It represents the major stakeholders, all committed to developing a strategic plan. Goals and specific products are being hammered out right now under the able leadership of Deputy City Attorney Georgina Mendoza. A detailed timeline is being followed.
CASP’s work rests on a familiar premise: Like parents, the community must both nurture and set limits. Police, social services, the faith community and local citizen groups work in concert.
Major structural issues do exist, however, including a poor job market, underfunded schools, uncertain futures for basic civic amenities such as parks and libraries, parents working two jobs to make ends meet, kids without positive adults in their lives, heavy concentrations of liquor stores and the obscene availability of guns. These tough issues must be met head-on.
But a reliable core exists. Most people, even those living in marginal circumstances, work hard, want a better life for their kids, and do not commit crime.
We need changes in how we do business, but we must also address the social norm. A person living or working in Salinas has little right to ask the city or county to do more unless that person becomes a true citizen by doing something: reporting crime, coaching, mentoring, helping to clean up the neighborhood, parenting.
Is it too much to dream that Azahel’s loss might lead to Salinas one day being named, like San Jose, as one of America’s 10 safest cities? I feel a resolve in Salinas, and I feel hope.
Jack Calhoun directs the California City Gang Prevention Network for the National League of Cities Institute for Youth. He previously was commissioner of the U.S. Administration for Children, Youth and Families. He can be contacted through www.hopematters.org.