A federal grant to Santa Ana to help steer youngsters away from crime and learn why those behind bars wound up there is welcome recognition of the city's pioneering efforts in community policing.
Santa Ana will pick 100 eighth-graders who have failed at least two classes and will provide mentors and recreation programs for them. Police are asking churches and nonprofit organizations to provide the college-age mentors and tutors. Their job will be to get the youth interested in school.
The city's parks and recreation department will help create after-school sports programs. That is realistic recognition that even when children are kept busy in school and have parents at home at night, the hours between school and evening provide temptations and danger. Keeping children busy after school is important. Giving them the chance to have fun is the best way to make a program a success.
The Justice Department grant of $956,000 also will help pay for the city to earmark seven police officers and 13 recreation employees to the experimental program. Additionally, a USC professor will research Santa Ana residents who are in jail to get a better understanding of what causes crime in Orange County's largest city. The grant was not much of a surprise, considering that last year the Justice Department recognized Santa Ana's community policing program as one of the most successful models in the country.
Santa Ana has assigned more than a dozen officers to the community policing task force. Their job is to get out on the streets, learn who belongs in a neighborhood and who does not, and engender trust among residents.
When it works, community policing can prevent crime, rather than having squads of officers pour out of station houses to catch criminals after a store is robbed or someone is murdered. Residents let police know if they see something suspicious.
Police often help with questions about other services, such as whom to call when a street needs repair. They can advise how to make new buildings less tempting targets for criminals. Men and women in uniform become an accustomed presence in the community; they are viewed as people willing to help, not members of an occupying army.
Community policing is one reason cited for the drop in Santa Ana's homicide rate in recent years, down last year to 25. In 1993, the number was 48. Police said a crackdown on gangs, an improving economy and the three-strikes law that puts more people in prison for life also contributed to the decline.
Police tactics and programs change with the times, and Santa Ana has modified parts of its community policing program, which dates to the 1970s. The new operations financed by the Justice Department could help the city cut the crime rate even more and serve as a model.