OvervieStockton on Right Path against Organized Crimew:

Law enforcement scores major victory against gang violence

We all have a Stockton in our head. But many Stocktonians are disengaged, misinformed, or even traumatized. So it’s legit to wonder how many periodically update their image to reflect our changing city.

Case in point: top cops announced last week a huge gang takedown. It would be a shame if it got lost in the shuffle of elections, and if it were not appreciated as part of a bigger trend going Stockton’s way.

In response to a spike in gun violence the last couple years, District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar announced “the largest takedown of organized crime in the history of San Joaquin County.”

The largest ever.

Some of the weapons confiscated during Operation Hybrid Havoc. (MICHAEL FITZGERALD/CONTRIBUTOR)

As has been reported, Operation Hybrid Havoc, a joint investigation into Stockton street gangs, netted 90 people including two murder suspects, an arsenal of guns, as well as drugs and cash.

The investigation focused on the Northside Gangster Crips, Sutter Street Crips, Flyboys/MOB/Muddy Boys, Nightengale/EBK (which stands for Everybody Killers), Nortenos, and West Side Bloods.

‘The Critical 100″

At a news conference, Verber Salazar evoked “the critical 100,” the city’s most violent criminals. “Well, 88 of them are going to spend time with me, and the other 12, you better hope to God we don’t find you.”

On Tuesday, Verber Salazar lost her reelection bid to longtime SJC prosecutor Ron Freitas.

Other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies teamed up with Stockton for this operation. Such cooperation, a hallmark of good government, sure beats the sorry situation of 15 years ago when our city and county only spoke to each other in court.

“We have to collaborate,” Stockton’s new Police Chief Stan McFadden said at the news conference.

Verber Salazar laid out in more detail what caused the gun violence spike. Nationally, homicides rose with the effect of a contagion. Locally, one gang kingpin’s murder created a power vacuum.

“His death left open who controls territory, drugs, and guns,” she said. “So older gang members — by older I mean 25-30 — were all competing for this.”

Law enforcement’s intel-gathering operation was so big it required state money, which the Department of Justice and Highway Patrol chipped in. Around 70 officials from numerous agencies participated — 50 more when a judge signed warrants.

Stockton Police Chief Stanley McFadden speaks at the Operation Hybrid Havoc press conference. Stockton Mayor Kevin Lincoln is on the left, and California Attorney General Ron Bonta and San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar are on the right. (MICHAEL FITZGERALD/CONTRIBUTOR)

Now, “Kids can play in the street,” Verber Salazar said at the news conference. “We’re giving them their parks back.”

To appreciate the operation as a successful one-off, however, would be to miss the context of falling crime rates and better policing — however reluctant longtime Stocktonians may be to believe it.

In 2006, a Harvard criminologist identified gangs as the nucleus of Stockton’s violent crime. Anthony A. Braga recommended more cops, targeted anti-gang efforts, and intervention to draw at-risk youths out of gangs and help them.

Heeding the OVP

City executives, notorious for ignoring expert advice, thankfully listened and created the Office of Violence Prevention. They embraced other ideas, too, such as Operation Ceasefire.

It’s well known by now that OVP’s streetwise outreach workers, the Peacekeepers, respond to shootings and to tips about youth at risk of becoming gun violence perpetrators or victims.

The OVP has had good leadership and bad. It appears now to have matured into effective operations and gained cred as an outfit that can get youths away from trouble and turn lives around.

“Everyone knows about the Office of Violence Prevention,” said its director, Lori Larson. “Not only probation and parole but teachers and other community members call and ask, ‘We have an individual that needs help. Can you help them?’ And if they fit our criteria, we do.”

Help may consist of emergency relocation of a youth in danger of being shot, housing, vocational training, counseling, a job, a degree, a driver’s license, or whatever else is needed.

“We’re not just saving lives,” said City Manager Harry Black. “We’re changing lives.”

The city now looks at crime more holistically, seeing the need for better education, higher-paying jobs, and affordable housing.

The decade 2012-2021 also featured the innovative leadership of Police Chief Eric Jones. Jones introduced such policies as procedural justice, implicit bias training, reconciliation, and listening sessions.

He increased data-driven policing and instituted trauma teams that visit neighborhood shooting scenes with counseling, food, and other forms of support.

The upshot: Stockton’s serious crime rate has been decreasing since 2013 — with the exception of the recent gun violence spike that generated Operation Hybrid Havoc.

Also, according to the Stockton Police Department, the number of gang members in Stockton has decreased from 2,261 in 2017 to 688 today. More than a two-thirds reduction.

Good news by any measure.

There are still neighborhoods where residents live in fear, and Stockton likely retains the potential for egregious if rare crimes that shock and harrow beyond the city borders.

Perhaps also many Stocktonians never shook the trauma from the 1989 Cleveland School shootings. That event may have shattered the city’s sense of its security for a generation.  

But public safety is improving. To acknowledge as much is to thin the cloud of negativity that hangs over Stockton, a cloud that must be dispelled before the city can reach its full potential.

Michael Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. He’s on Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: michaelf@stocktonia.org.

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5 Comments

  1. Our community loses one of its most ardent supporters with the defeat of DA Tori Verber Salazar. Defeating gangs is only one of the problems our city faces. 209 Times is also a problem that plagues our city. How do we ‘defeat’ them?

    1. I would not declare any of the San Joaquin County elections yet. There’s plenty of votes out.

  2. Glad to see former Record columnist Michael Fitzgerald back writing articles here to keep real journalism alive.

  3. I second Gene Beley’s comment about having Mike Fitzgerald back in action. This is a hopeful article, except for the news about Tori Verber Salazar losing her race. I hope she finds a way to serve Stockton again.

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