Sacramento Police fight gang violence with empathy

Jeff vonKaenel

Do you consider cops friend or foe? While most people I know believe we need a police force in our society, there are many people who are not “bad guys” who are afraid of the police. In recent months, this fear has been intensified by the Twin Rivers Police Department selling “U raise ’em, we cage ’em” T-shirts, and then by the incident at UC Davis, where a police officer appeared to casually use pepper spray on peaceful demonstrators. Can we have effective law enforcement when many members of the community are afraid of the police?

Recently, I saw a very different side of law enforcement. Several ministers, a police officer and a leader of the nonprofit interfaith Area Congregations Together came by the News & Review to discuss Ceasefire, their effort to prevent gang violence.

The Ceasefire approach identifies young people whose previous actions suggest they are likely to commit violence. They then ask them to come by for a “call in” where they meet with police officers, religious leaders and employers. There they are offered a real choice. They can turn around their life or face the consequences of continuing down a wayward path. The members of the Ceasefire delegation presented data on the effectiveness of this approach, showing that it reduced both gang violence and recidivism of the targeted gang members.

By happenstance, while driving around recently, I had been listening to Tattoos on the Heart, a book by Father Gregory Boyle who has been working with gang members for many decades in Los Angeles. His organization, Homeboy Industries, offered them jobs. This book was very moving. Rather than portraying gang members as thugs, they were presented as people who have had horrific youth experiences that led them into gang violence. This approach, like the Ceasefire approach, reflects greater understanding and empathy for them as humans, and is a much more effective approach.

This question, police as friend or foe, recently became very personal for me. My daughter Natasha, who is a freshman at UC Berkeley, told me about her experiences at the UC Berkeley Occupy demonstrations. She was at the frontlines, with a clear view of some of the inappropriate behavior by out-of-town law-enforcement officers, as well as the reactions of the UC Berkeley officers.

She told me that the UC Berkeley cops are the kind of people that walk you to class at night and are concerned for student safety. She saw tears in some of their eyes as they watched the violent interactions. Clearly, many of the Berkeley police officers view themselves as friends, not as foes. This is the same approach the Sacramento cops take with Ceasefire. They see their role as working with the community as friends, rather than as foes.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.