The 1960s movie "West Side Story" may have glamorized New York youth gangs. But there's certainly nothing glamorous about Bakersfield's gangs dubbed East Side Crips and the rival Country Boy Crips. Bakersfield Police Chief Bill Rector notes that gangs intimidate neighborhoods, instill fear among law-abiding citizens and kill people. "There are families losing young people on a regular basis," he lamented.
Fortunately, Rector's department is not ignoring the problem. He told The Californian's editorial board this week that he is increasing officers on the anti-gang unit from 14 to 20 to deal with the increasing gang menace.
In 2003, there were 40 gang-related shootings in Bakersfield and 55 last year. So far this year there have been 70 shootings. Part of the increase can be attributed to a huge population growth in the city. In recent years, gang-related shootings were 89 in 1999; 54 in 2000; 29 in 2001 and 27 in 2002.
Drugs are the root cause. The two local gangs battle over territorial rights so they can have a bigger base to sell drugs. Rector outlined methods used by police to disrupt gang activities by regularly checking on parolees, making frequent contact with law-abiding citizens in troubled neighborhoods and working closely with the Sheriff's and Probation departments.
"We need to build our relationship with the community," the chief said. "We need to have that old-fashioned cop-neighbor relationship that's worked for hundreds of years." During their patrols, officers are encouraged to mingle and get to know neighbors to build a trusting relationship.
In addition, video cameras may be set up in hot spots and -- at the urging of Councilwoman Irma Carson -- a neighborhood ad hoc committee on gangs may be re-established.
Rector observed that gang shootings are not just confined to certain neighborhoods as recent shootings have occurred throughout the city.
One potential weapon in the battle to quell gangs could be implementation of an injunction program. Police chiefs throughout the county gathered in Bakersfield Thursday to learn how some cities in Southern California have served court-ordered injunctions on well-known gang leaders that prohibits them from living in or visiting troubled neighborhoods.
Besides keeping involved with other Central Valley law enforcement agencies in battling gangs, Rector said his department will seek more federal prosecution of gang crime.
Federal prosecution would ensure longer jail terms and might result in sending convicted gang thugs out of the state, he said.
A big problem that continually faces law enforcement officials in combatting gang violence is the fear of retaliation if a citizen provides police with vital information about violent cases.
To combat the fear factor, Rector's department has set up a gang-related phone hotline. Anyone can call 326-3355 to report gang incidents. Callers are guaranteed anonymity and their phone numbers will not be recorded, he said.
Rector admitted the department could do a better job getting the hotline number distributed -- especially in hot areas. Flyers and buttons with the number should be distributed throughout the city and to service clubs and organizations. It would be a worthy project for a service club to finance publication and distribution of the information.
The word needs to get out that informants will be protected since they will remain anonymous. That may be the best arsenal in the anti-gang battle.