Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Note to the Chief: Keep “CrimeView” open to reporters

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer every month hosts something called the “CrimeView” presentation. I’ll call it CrimeView for short.

Channel 30 reporter Stephanie Stone has attended a handful. I went to my first CrimeView on Wednesday, Aug. 14.

It was held in the media room of the old City Hall, Fresno Street at M Street (the building, now called the Annex, is part of police headquarters).

Being a rookie, I was hustling to make sense of what unfolded. But I can guarantee you three things: 1.) CrimeView is absolutely pivotal to any reporter who wants to keep abreast of the State of the City; 2.) Sheriff Margaret Mims should host something similar each month; 3.) I’ll be at the next CrimeView (unless the Chief bans the media — which might happen).

CrimeView’s lay of the land is this:
* There are a half-dozen rows of chairs in the back of the room. Police officers of various ranks and duties sit here. Stephanie and I were in the back row; she brought along a cameraman. A deputy district attorney sat in front of me. Aides to Council Members Paul Caprioglio and Clint Olivier were in the same row.

* Off to one side are some of PD’s computer experts. They’re kept busy throughout CrimeView.

* Three long tables are joined to form a “U.” Dyer and the four deputy chiefs — Pat Farmer, Keith Foster, Robert Nevarez, Sharon Shaffer — sit at one table. Several officers last Wednesday sat at the second table throughout the meeting, but I didn’t know their names. The third table (facing Dyer and the deputy chiefs) is the hot seat. Groups of officers come to this table, make oral reports with the aid of graphics, then depart for the next group.

* There are big screens at the front of the room. When Dyer or one of the presenters needs a graphic, the computer experts deliver it on one of the screens.

What unfolds is just what the title states — a fast-paced view of crime in Fresno. But it’s a lot more interesting than anything the City Council gets in the council chamber on a sleepy Thursday afternoon. At CrimeView you get to hear the Police Department’s front-line troops — the men and women actually out there on the streets trying to turn idealistic policy into crime-stopping results — deliver their assessments.

There were a lot of numbers, too many for me to grasp. Some of the numbers on the screens were too small for this old reporter’s eyes. The Chief was probably more generous with praise than when in a more private setting with his officers. And, to a large degree, everyone spoke with a caution that seems always present when police officers see a reporter nearby.

Despite all these qualifications, CrimeView struck me as meaty. And best of all, the presentation unfolded in a way that hinted at how the institution called the Fresno Police Department works in practice.

Needless to say, it’s a complex organization with a huge mission.

Dyer started by giving some year-to-date crime statistics. Violent crime was down nearly 8%, property crime down more than 12%, shootings down about 14%. The Chief praised his officers.

Then came a report from Lt. Mark Salazar, chief of the Street Violence Bureau. Again, we again got lots of statistics. We got shootings solved (99), robberies solved (58), search warrants (186), homes searched (246), guns recovered (116). I think this was for the previous 28-day period, but I’m not sure.

Salazar is real good at delivering this news. He’s forceful, blunt, detailed. You sense he gets the big picture as well as the nitty-gritty.

But what knocks your socks off are the photos that accompanied the reports by Salazar and several others.

Let me back up just for a second. Deputy Chief Foster on Dec. 20, 2012 wrote a report for the City Council. The report asked the council to accept a grant ($500,000 state, $500,000 local match) so the Police Department could, among other things, hire a full-time Gun/Gang analyst.

“The county of Fresno,” Foster wrote, “is home to 3.05% of the nation’s total gang members.”

One of every 330 people living in America is to be found in Fresno County. But we’re home to three of every 100 gang members in America.

That’s absolutely stunning. I wonder if Council Member Lee Brand’s Infill Development Subcommittee knows this. I’ll bet those developers eyeing the Rio Mesa area on the north side of the San Joaquin River do.

Back to Salazar and his colleagues.

The photos are of local gang members. They’re wanted by authorities. Or they’re identified as being especially dangerous and active.

The mug shots are displayed in considerable size — none of those tiny thumbnail pictures you get in the newspaper. Each photo includes the guy’s name and his gang.

It took me awhile before I realized Fresno has more identifiable gangs than all the teams in the National Football League and Major League Baseball combined. I started writing some names: Young Black Soldiers, Strother Boys, Dog Pound, Garret Street, Bond Street. Selma Bulldog.

Of course, there are the “regulars”: Crips, Fresno Bulldog, Nortenos, Surenos.

“They’re always active,” Salazar said of the Crips.

“He’s a heavy player,” he said of a gang member.

“He’ll be caring his weight here,” he said of a gang member who recently moved into town. Salarzar didn’t mean this guy would be a hard-working citizen.

There was a photo of a guy with a long, long neck. So long that it accommodated a large tatoo of the New York Yankees’ distinctive “NY” logo.

Salazar spoke of two brothers, both gang-bangers. They like guns. People who hate them also like guns. There was an entire week of alternating action. The brothers on one night drove around Fresno until they saw someone to shoot at. Then the brothers drove around the next night and were themselves the target of gunfire. Then the brothers on the third night drove around until they saw someone to shoot at. Back and forth, back and forth.

There apparently are neighborhoods in Fresno with a lifestyle totally alien to regular folks.

“These cases happen all the time — throughout the night,” Salazar said.

Just the city of Fresno has nearly enough full-time, validated gang-bangers — more than 10,000 in 94 gangs, according to Deputy Chief Foster’s Dec. 20 report — to fill a military division of infantry. There probably are at least that many affiliated gang members in the city, the Deputy Chief wrote.

In other words, the city of Fresno all by itself has enough gang-bangers (and affiliates) bent on mayhem and subversion to nearly fill a WWII Army corps. And we’re not even out in the county, yet.

The truth is this: Fresnans have simply gotten used to something that, in 1956, would have been intolerable to normal people. We’ve got quite a future ahead of us. Who would want to live here?

On top of all that, Chief Dyer in a recent email to me said the idea of using part of the grant to hire a full-time Gun/Gang analyst idea hit a wall. The Chief wrote:

“I just learned that we have not been able to hire the gun analyst. We conducted interviews but could not find anyone with the qualifications needed to take the position for the 18 month grant period. We recently modified the grant with the state and reallocated the funds to form a bridge between RMS (Records Management System) and the States Cal Gangs system. Previously we were using civilian employees and more recently modified duty officers to enter this data into Cal Gangs. This is our gang validation process. Now the RMS system automatically sends any gang arrest to a gang detective in MAGEC who reviews the info to ensure the person qualifies as a valid gang member and then simply hits a button to populate Cal Gangs system. This system is shared statewide. In essence we freed up a near full time position on data entry.

“We have recently recruited a skilled volunteer to map out our gun arrests. We have some preliminary maps developed. That system will eventually be automated. In terms of mapping shootings, we are still working on that, but I anticipate we will transition that duty to our crime analyst when they come on board. We also have a gun detective who currently analyzes every gun arrest to determine if follow up is needed to strengthen the case and whether the case should be prosecuted through the State or through the US Attorney.”

Back to last Wednesday’s CrimeView. Various division or police district heads took turns in the hot seat, along with their top assistants. The Chief fired questions. Among the comments and points, coming mostly from the hot seat (no names other than the Chief’s this time — I’ll do better next time):

* “Very quickly the word gets around that MAGEC is out.” In other words, the bad guys tend to disappear when the multi-agency gang enforcement consortium tackles a neighborhood.

* On the Surenos gang: “They’re loners. They’re very aggressive.”

* “We’re losing our leverage with probation, parole.” There was no interpretation of this comment. What leverage? Why the loss?

* The department appears to have a pretty good intelligence network. Officials spoke at some length about which high-profile gang members were in town, which were out of town, and who is on another gang’s hit list.

* The cell phones of bad guys are a rich source of intelligence.

* Chop shops — places where stolen cars are cut up for parts — used to have five or six cars on hand when they got busted. Now the chop shops are smaller — one car at a time.

* On the effort to stamp out gangs: “When we move the manpower, the fire pops up over here. We’ll probably never completely put it out.”

* Arson is turning into a major challenge in homeless camps.

* There have recently been a lot of vehicle burglaries in downtown.

* “A uniformed presence is one of the determining factors” in reducing crime, Dyer said. The department in the past four years has seen its roster of sworn officers drop from about 850 to about 730.

* “I believe there is a direct correlation between crime reduction and felony arrests,” Dyer said.

* Some neighborhoods in the past month have seen spikes in robberies and vehicle thefts. There were reductions in other neighborhoods. Aggravated assaults seem to be on the rise everywhere.

* Just one quick note on the department’s 150 video cameras. The chief flashed on the front screen the location of each camera. Most are in downtown and Southwest Fresno. First time I’d ever seen a public display of the cameras’ locations.

* The chief’s final comment before he left Stephanie and me at the end of the meeting: “It’s important we identify the crime trends quickly.”

I left CrimeView intrigued by what I’d seen. I also realized I saw just the tip of the iceberg that is law enforcement in Fresno. For example, how does the Investigations Division fit into things? Where (and how) do decisions on personnel deployments get made? Is the Police Department a place that pursues and encourages innovation?

Maybe all that will be debated in the next year or so.

If, that is, there is another CrimeView.

I chatted briefly with Chief Dyer and Deputy Chief Farmer in the late afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 15, at City Hall. The Aug. 14 CrimeView presentation was Topic A.

“My guys said, ‘Why did you let the media in?’” Dyer said to me. “They said, ‘We can’t speak freely with reporters there.’”

My advice to the Chief: Keep the reporters — tell everyone to open their hearts and minds.

That’s how an informed public will be best served.

Responses

Dan says:

George, I can understand why some officers aren’t thrilled to have “reporters” in the CrimeView sessions.

What’s a “reporter” these days? Are they full time employees of a traditional media outlet? Does the definition include bloggers, who don’t work for an outlet? That’s precisely the debate playing out around the proposed federal Shield law.

I know of at least one writer who has a huge axe to grind with the Police Department, especially where it comes to use of force and homeless issues. If that person was present, I’m sure no one would want to speak frankly, in fear that information would be misused or leaked to the wrong people.

I’m not sure what the Chief should do. But I do think media access to CrimeView, if continued, probably should be limited to a few.

Bruce Armstrong says:

Whenever someone complains about surveillance cameras around the city, the typical police response is, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.”

That would be my response to the officers who are complaining about “reporters” (representative of the common people) in their briefing: “If you guys aren’t doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.”

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