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Riverside County Focusing on Gangs

District attorney seeks funds for a special prosecutor to direct a widespread crackdown.

June 30, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

To combat a gang problem that he says feeds troubles ranging from increased truancy to violent crime, Riverside County Dist. Atty. Grover Trask is asking county and city leaders to pay for a special prosecutor to coordinate a crackdown on gangs.

An increased focus on intervention, prevention and suppression is needed to contend with more mobile, powerful and violent gangs, Trask said.

The county's lead gang prosecutor, Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco, who proposed the new position, already is traveling to city halls asking local leaders for financial support.

"What we need is someone who can identify the anti-gang resources in this county and create a task force so we all get to know each other to coordinate those resources," said Pacheco, a former state assemblyman.

The district attorney's office estimates there are 233 active gangs in the county with more than 8,000 members.

Trask is asking the county to pay half the cost of the new post -- about $225,000 a year, including $150,000 for the prosecutor's salary -- and cities to cover the rest. Because of the state budget crisis, Trask is not expecting county supervisors to approve its half of funding of the pilot program until October, with the yet-to-be-nominated gang coordinator tentatively scheduled to begin working early next year.

However, the county's top budget official questions the need for a new position in tight times.

"They can reassign someone into the position immediately, right?" asked Ed Corser, county finance director, noting that the district attorney has 75 prosecutors. "That would give [Trask] the opportunity to try it out, to demonstrate it can be a success."

Trask said that prosecutors are already overburdened and that he is seeking other new positions to address specific needs in the county.

Cities have not formally endorsed the deal yet, but several are enthusiastic, Pacheco said.

"After reviewing this, and the ideas about how it will work, I am absolutely thrilled they are talking about creating this position; it's absolutely needed," Hemet Mayor Lori Van Arsdale said.

Trask said that creating a gang enforcement coordinator is just the beginning and that the cost is not a lot for the county to invest.

"This is a more comprehensive approach, and our goals are more than just suppression," Trask said. Beyond prosecuting gang leaders, "we want to work with cities to develop programs with existing resources to deter gang recruitment.... This is a new concept that puts the district attorney's office in a nontraditional role" coordinating fragmented services offered by many agencies. Following a series of arrests of alleged drug dealers and gang members by Riverside police earlier this year, Trask ordered his prosecutors to discontinue the practice of offering plea bargains in such cases.

Pacheco said he and Trask were following a "broken window" policy used by New York Police during Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's term: Punish the smallest transgressions severely to deter greater transgressions.

Increased crime rates, the increasing presence of gang member sightings at family-frequented locales and the expansion of gang membership prompted the two to propose the gang coordinator position. Pacheco said the gang coordinator also will be charged with improving education and employment opportunities for at-risk youths.

"We have an obligation to chop the heads off of local gangs and stop new gangs from forming," said Trask, who noted the county's reputation as "virgin territory" for gang members moving from Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

The best preventive measures, Trask and Pacheco say, are improving education and job-training programs funded by state and social agencies. Specific targets include the county's Youth Accountability Team, with personnel placed at 18 county school districts to address warning signs -- such as misbehavior and truancy -- shown by students as young as 8. Beyond that, agencies can do a better job of informing low-income youths of their chances of a college education and placing them in jobs, Pacheco said.

All the while, Trask said, the coordinator would continue to oversee suppression, concentrating on trouble spots that surface -- similar to the drug-buy program they organized in February and March that resulted in 60 arrests in the East Side, La Sierra and downtown districts of Riverside.

Patterson Park in Riverside, site of a Little League field where games are no longer played because of shootings, John F. Kennedy Park in Moreno Valley, and troubled areas of Corona, Hemet and Jurupa also are being targeted by Trask's office.

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