City council hopefuls address gang activity
The recent shooting death of a 14-year-old Colusa boy and the apparent gang connections involved in the killing prompted one City Council candidate to call on voters to join him in doing something about it.
"In light of the recent violent crimes and robberies, we as a small town have to wonder if we will ever get our serenity back, or have those things that we previously only watched on the news finally crept into our community for good?" Greg Ponciano asked in a letter to the editor.
"The fact is that drugs and gangs are a part of our world now, and the character of our town will be defined by how we choose to deal with them in the future. We should not just accept it; we should not just ignore it; we should not look for fault, but rather find the remedy," he stated.
But what are those remedies? What role should the City Council play? And what do the six council candidates believe is the right course?
Ponciano admits it is more difficult to come up with specific actions, but argued the city has no choice, and if given no other option — such as grant funding — he is willing to dedicate more general fund dollars to police and cut in other areas.
However, he said at this time he does not know where those cuts would be made.
He would support program such as graffiti abatement, Neighborhood Watch, parental education so they know what to look for and early-grade education.
Mayor Pat Landreth said public safety is critical, both police and fire, but added there is nowhere else to cut in the budget.
Building the economy and tax revenues to supplement department budgets must be a part of the solution — and that will take time.
"Our departments are running at bare bones," Landreth said. "We have staffing needs in all our departments."
He also cautioned that while Colusa has its share of crime and needs a fully staffed police department, crimes such as the shooting and the bank robbery are relatively rare.
Landreth noted the addition of one new officer recently, another that will come on board soon and a 10th is being recruited through the federal COPS grant awarded to the city.
Both Ponciano and Christopher Fantl, who have discussed this issue with each other, agree a gang taskforce needs to be established among all the law enforcement agencies in the county, and then direct action — including house visits to suspected gang members — be conducted.
"We need top start rattling their cages; start knocking on their doors," said Ponciano, adding that would be a way of letting the parents know there is an issue as well.
Where funding for such a program would come from, of course, is the difficult part, but Fantl is willing to consider virtually anything, including the use of reserves, sharing a police chief position with Williams, and disbanding the Colusa Police Department and contracting with the Sheriff's Department.
"In some respects, I wouldn't have trouble with that," said Fantl, explaining that would not be his first choice. "Do we need a police department? Yes. But could we (merge) with the Sheriff's Department? Yes."
While it is not specifically a gang unit, Landreth noted that the Colusa County narcotics task force does do a lot of work identifying and investigating gang members.
He said the city simply has not had the funding to participate fully, but said the task force works closely with the city police.
Councilwoman Kay Hosmer said every city and county is after the same funding sources to combat crime, and specifically gang activity.
She said it was a familiar topic at the recent League of California Cities conference she attended, and collaboration among cities and counties — and thus sharing funding — was a big part of the discussions.
However, she does not see a Colusa budget shift to police as the solution.
She believes the work begins in the schools and in the community. By the time it gets to law enforcement, it is too late.
Hosmer said there must be an effort to reach out to the Hispanic community, and supports the idea of a community center that would benefit everyone.
However, she does not see the financing available for that kind of project, so the first critical step is through education.
Marilyn Acree agrees that law enforcement is only a piece of the bigger picture that needs to be addressed, and is not the solution.
She also thinks there is a working framework with various school and community groups out there, but it needs to be organized and focused.
"We need to know the big picture and learn about the root causes for why kids join gangs, ... and I am not trying to minimize the murder," Acree said. "But to say we need another police officer without a plan is short-sighted. ... I think having another police officer would be helpful, but that will not get rid of the gangs."
All the candidates agreed having a presence on the school campus, especially at the elementary and junior high levels, is important.
Councilman Kirk Kelleher said the council should follow the lead of the Police Department, and funding decisions need to be made on a year-to-year basis, and could not say now from where additional funding would come.
"All we can do as a council is make sure they have the resources they need," Kelleher said.
"I think the Police Department is better off than it has been, but the Police Department still needs more resources."