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Community Must Do Its Part

May 14, 2000

Families in Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley remain rattled by repercussions from two recent shootings at the Conejo Creek condominium complex in Newbury Park.

On April 28, as parents stood outside talking and children played in the street, two carloads of men opened fire on Edgar Cruz, 19, and his friend Andres Morales, 18. Cruz died at the scene; Morales was treated at a hospital and later released.

Sheriff's deputies arrested seven men in connection with the shootings, all members of a Salvadoran gang from Van Nuys. Scores of police also swept through 11 residences in Newbury Park and Van Nuys, seizing evidence. One gang member has been charged with attempted murder of Morales but none has been charged with the Cruz slaying; three of the seven have been released.

Two days later, more gunmen fired on a group of condominium residents on their way to a memorial service for Cruz. This time, no one was injured.

Quite naturally, the shootings inspired calls for greater police presence in Conejo Creek, one of the few lower-income areas of affluent Thousand Oaks. We agree that police resources should be deployed where they are most critically needed in this, one of the nation's safest cities. But there is a limit to what law enforcement authorities can do by themselves.

We challenge community residents to channel their anger and fear in two directions:

* Respond more vigorously to community policing efforts that already exist. Last year, concerned that the 540-unit complex showed the highest crime rate in low-crime Thousand Oaks, the city took the extraordinary step of purchasing one of the condominiums and turning it into a combination police substation and community center. Senior Deputy Ed Tumbleson of the Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving (COPPS) unit was stationed there from June 1999 to January 2000. The pilot project was a mixed success: Violent crime and gang-related violence declined 85% but the officer failed to persuade residents to support a Neighborhood Watch program, which would help sustain that remarkable improvement.

* Acknowledge and work to resolve ethnic friction within Conejo Creek. Police believe the recent violence stemmed from conflicts between community residents from Mexico and a Salvadoran immigrant who had recently moved to the complex and had ties to the Van Nuys gang. Cruz's uncle said his nephew was at the scene of an earlier fight between Mexican and Salvadoran residents but stressed that the teenager had not been directly involved. Neither Cruz nor Morales was a gang member, police say.

After the shootings, sheriff's officials hosted a community meeting at which more than 200 residents demanded more police protection. Patrols were fortified, with as many as eight extra deputies working the area each night, some on bicycles and others in patrol cars that circle the complex several times an hour.

On Tuesday, the Thousand Oaks City Council will consider a proposal by Councilwoman Linda Parks to again assign one of the city's three COPPS officers to the Conejo Creek community center. Although such a move probably would have done little to prevent the recent shootings, the remarkable success of last year's pilot program at reducing violent crime suggests that the idea has merit.

The decision rests with the City Council with advice from the police chief, yet we believe it should be based largely on the response of the Conejo Creek residents. If a COPPS officer were again dedicated to their complex, what steps would they take to organize and support a Neighborhood Watch? And how would they address ethnic and cultural differences among residents? There aren't enough police in the nation to keep the peace unless community residents do their part.

"Crime and gangs will only survive in an environment where citizens allow them to," Deputy Tumbleson told The Times. "I think this is going to be a catalyst for the community."

We hope so. We support the concept of a dedicated COPPS officer for Conejo Creek and a continuation of stepped-up patrols--and we urge the residents of that community to commit to do their part.

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