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Calif. police chief brainstorms with residents on ways to reduce violent crime over summer

Residents talked about increasing partnerships with neighborhood associations and community groups to create safer youth activities in the summer evenings


Sacramento Police Chief Kathy Lester discusses ways to reduce violent crime this summer with residents at the Oak Park Community Center in Sacramento.

Photo/Rosalio Ahumada via TNS

By Rosalio Ahumada
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Mary Ponder recently moved to an affordable apartment in downtown Sacramento, an area of the city where she’s found a lively atmosphere with frequent events and many people moving about.

Her move downtown has been good, Ponder said. But she never goes out at night, even if her daughter and granddaughter are with her. She doesn’t know what exactly makes her cautious, but it’s there.

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“Sometimes I feel like a little vibe, like it shouldn’t be there,” Ponder said about what she encounters in downtown Sacramento. “I do go out in the daytime, but not at night.”

She shared her safety concerns Wednesday evening during an informal brainstorming session of community members working with police to reduce violence as the summer begins — a time of year when crime in the capital city typically rises along with the heat.

Those who attended the brainstorming session offered their ideas to Sacramento Police Chief Kathy Lester, who said her officers usually sees an increase of calls for service in the summer. More people tend to stay outside later into the evening; there’s more public events. She said that also comes with a spike in violence.

“We pay really close attention, not just to the summer but to the holiday weekends,” Lester said. “We know that when alcohol gets involved in certain situations, that can be an issue. We also know that tensions can be heightened.”

More activities for youth encouraged

Shiloh Baptist Church Pastor Anthony Sadler, who acted as moderator for the event, said the warmer weather and summer break for schools means more young people will be out in the neighborhood. He said now is the time for communities to come together and create safe places for them.

“We want to explore ways tonight where we can work together as a community and make for a safer summer for our young people and our communities at large,” Sadler said before the event began. “We hope to walk away not only united in a collaborative way, but have some action steps on how we can move forward and carry this through the summer.”

About a dozen people attended Wednesday’s session at the Oak Park Community Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Residents from the Oak Park, Natomas and Pocket neighborhoods, along with one woman from Elk Grove, were there.

They spoke about increasing partnerships with neighborhood associations, community groups and faith-based organizations and they said more safe youth activities were needed in the summer evenings.

“Making sure that our youths have more access to the community centers throughout our city,” Sadler said. “Giving them safe places to come together and have fun.”

Lester also spoke about the Police Department’s recent successes and how community groups have helped reduce violent crime in the city.

In this clip from the Policing Matters podcast, discover how partnerships between police and young people are building trust with creating safe spaces for kids to play and learn, supporting youth programs that make a difference and more. Listen to the full podcast.

Homicides have dropped since Lester took over

Lester became Sacramento’s new police chief in January 2022, as homicides were on an upward trend, from 36 in 2018 to 58 in 2021, the most the city had seen since 2006, according to Police Department statistics.

Even in 2022, a year in which Sacramento saw a slight drop in homicides, downtown Sacramento experienced a mass shooting that killed six people and wounded 12 others.

“We saw a really heightened level of violence. I mean spikes in homicides, spikes in shootings,” Lester said Wednesday. “I think everyone felt like the world was just really out of control and very scary.”

Lester and her officers have already been developing a strategy to reduce gun violence, a plan driven by intelligence gathering while working closely with community groups targeting root causes of crime, such as poverty and drug and alcohol abuse, with intervention and prevention services.

Last year, Sacramento had a significant decline in the number of homicides, dropping to 38 in 2023 from 54 in 2022, 58 in 2021 and 43 in 2020. The overall violent crime rate, including aggravated assaults, reported rapes and robberies, also trended downward.

New focus for police: Intelligence over suppression

Sgt. Michael Severi, a member of the agency’s violent crime reduction team, explained how their strategy has changed in the past couple of years. He said they used to be called the gang enforcement team with a primary directive of enforcement “to find criminals.”

Now, his team focuses on investigating violent crimes that occurred, using intelligence gathering to lead them to suspects instead of blanketing the neighborhood with suppression operations. And Severi said the officers on his team carry out the investigations themselves instead of waiting for detectives who are busy investigating homicides.

At this time last year, the officers on his team working cases in the east part of Sacramento conducted 467 traffic stops as part of their investigations, Severi said at Wednesday’s event. The same officers have made the same amount of arrests so far this year, but have only had to pull over 31 vehicles. Severi said that shows how their investigations are now more focused, targeting the small amount of people responsible for violent crime.

“What we do now is a strictly focused investigation,” Severi said. “So everybody that we are going after has committed a crime.”

Lester has pointed to community groups as a key driver in the city’s violent crime reduction.

Dr. Nicole Clavo, manager for the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, who also spoke at Wednesday’s event, said there are community groups in the Oak Park neighborhood, each with an expertise that leads to violence reduction. She said they host workshops at high schools, help people obtain their driver’s licenses, offer mentorship programs for Black youths and provide intervention services to thwart violence.

She said these community groups work specifically with people with known street gang affiliations “that we know, nine times out of 10, have a weapon on them or have been already found to have a weapon.”

“And they’re trying to help them, give them resources, redirect that energy and give them something positive to look forward to,” Clavo said.


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