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Residents take anti-gang efforts into their own hands

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Beth Winegarner
Daily News Staff Writer
December 22, 2005

In the summer of 2004, residents of San Mateo’s North Amphlett Boulevard got fed up with being overrun by gangs.

They called a meeting, invited neighbors and the police and talked openly about what they’d seen and heard in their neighborhood. Then they went back to their homes and got to work, pruning grass and bushes, lowering fences, painting houses, picking up litter and painting over gang-related graffiti.

This year, due in part to those efforts, the crime rate on that stretch of North Amphlett dropped 77 percent, according to Alejando Vilchez, a mediator with the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center who helped residents and the police find ways to work together.

“It wasn’t just the police who could do the job. It really needed a community-based approach,” Vilchez said.

He helped arrange monthly meetings so residents could get to know each other and learn how to defend their homes from the violence and vandalism that comes with heightened gang activity. Police officers met with neighbors and told them where to trim bushes and add lighting for better visibility and safer streets.

“I wouldn’t say everything is perfect now, but it’s a complete turnaround from where that block was a year ago,” Vilchez said.

After three gang-related homicides struck the Redwood City area this summer, residents in several of that city’s neighborhoods followed in North Amphlett’s footsteps. In September they met with fellow neighbors, told police their fears, and asked for some serious backup.

Within weeks, the Redwood City Council voted to give $200,000 to the Redwood City Police Department to fund more police patrols for affected areas. Meanwhile, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors set aside more than $1 million for a countywide gang task force.

The Stambaugh-Heller and Palm Park neighborhoods became the focus of Redwood City’s fall cleanup effort. Residents met several more times to regroup and discuss what more they could accomplish. As they came forward regarding local gang activities, hundreds of gang members were arrested.

“For me, the dialogue has helped in bringing an awareness about gangs,” said Maria Diaz Vivian, head of the Stambaugh-Heller Neighborhood Association. “I want to say kudos and thank you to the officials for showing that if you bring something to them, they will get off their butts and do something.”

At the same time, residents have been getting to know each other, and some have put a considerable amount of their own money into a high-tech surveillance system that allows them to keep a close eye on gang activity, according to Diaz Vivian.

Having the technology is making some locals, who otherwise feared retaliation, come forward and report gang-related doings in their neighborhoods. “Some people are so frightened they don’t want to tell,” Diaz Vivian said.

The Stambaugh-Heller Neighborhood Association is the first to create a brochure teaching residents about after-school programs and activities for kids to keep them from being targets for gang recruitment. Those pamphlets also offer safety tips for locals hoping to stay out of harm’s way.

Next year, she will help create a similar countywide brochure and others for the Fair Oaks and Palm Park neighborhoods.

Vilchez and the PCRC continue to educate Peninsula residents about the signs of gang activity, from tagging to minor crimes, that emerge before serious violence erupts. He also offers ongoing workshops at local schools, particularly for Latino students.

“There is an opportunity for people to learn,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily News.

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 22, 2005 at 9:49 PM

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