The Cowboy Capital of the World is taking on another trait of the Old West, this one definitely not a characteristic it may want to continue.
Just like Tombstone, Arizona and Dodge City of the 1800s, gun drawing and shootouts on public streets are becoming more commonplace for this suburban city. The cause of this gun-wielding and gunfire are closely associated in all the cases with the growing gang element within Oakdale. What was once only tagging vandalism and loitering nuisances by the local ring of miscreants has now escalated to the threat of deadly violence. The result of the added gun violence is leading witnesses, and even some victims, to go into hiding.
Last week, two individuals were shot by a documented gang member after a party. Last month, two youths were gunned down at the Oakdale Market, a known gang hangout where the investigation has shown a possible motive by the shooter was his frustration from the gang harassment to his family.
Earlier this year, the city experienced drive-by shootings where a North Oak Avenue home was shot up in March and a South Sixth Avenue was sprayed with bullets in May. Police say both incidents were a result of increasing gang activity in the city.
Even innocent citizens are becoming victims when in early December three documented gang members were arrested for an attempted carjacking after brandishing a firearm to a Bridle Ridge resident.
In August, Alex Merrill, a documented gang member, shot up an East D Street party where he was not invited and fled, later shooting at more subjects at a nearby shopping center. Oakdale Police engaged in a vehicle pursuit of Merrill, who ended up crashing into a house.
As a matter of procedure, police avoid naming specific gangs, or give them any chance at earning notoriety in the press. Gang members have been known to save newspaper clippings of crimes they’ve committed like trophies. But local law enforcement members who deal with gangs—and indeed many Oakdale residents—know who the gangs are and they know the members.
The gang culture, very much like a cult, doesn’t trust anyone outside their inner group. They also fear retaliation from their gang if they cooperate or inform law enforcement. Investigators have reported that witnesses to some of these acts refused to cooperate with law enforcement, forcing police to work off rumors and even target victims in order to get answers.
In the past, police were able to combat a growing problem through targeted enforcement activity, specialized units gathering intelligence, participation in local task forces, and school resource officers. All were deemed pro-active policing measures that have virtually become extinct due to budget cuts and a police department with only adequate staffing to handle basic patrol responsibilities.
Even the double homicide from Nov. 11 had to be handed off to the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office investigators due to decreased staffing and, according to some within the department, a lack of qualified investigators or resources.
Oakdale Police Chief Lester Jenkins can only play the cards he’s dealt when he took over the already budget-cut department this July when it comes to balancing the manpower. The force currently stands at 20 sworn members from a once 29 sworn only a few years ago that included school resource officers and a detective devoted to gangs.
The SROs that were valuable in gathering gang information in the schools and interacting with teens – the most vulnerable age group – have been taken out of the budget.
In addition to budgeted staffing cuts, department training coffers have been virtually eliminated. The department had been sending persons annually to state gang conferences and has had to eliminate the expense, thus losing much-needed information to stay on top of identification, prevention, and recent trends in activity.
Jenkins said he is doing as much as he can with the officers he has.
He has beefed up patrols on weekend nights using funds from a recently obtained federal grant to pay for the overtime or reserve officers.
“There are a lot of Norteños (in the city) and the potential for violence occurs,” Jenkins said, adding that when gang members are contacted, officers are showing zero tolerance or leeway in their dealings. “The gang element is responsible for much of the violent crime in the city. We’re also there to keep them alive from rivals.”
Parties have also become a big hazard when they happen in the city according to Jenkins, blaming social networking for getting the word out and outsiders arriving, causing problems.
Detective Max Messina, who once worked gangs in the city exclusively, said with the priority of some other investigations he’s been assigned, he can only deal with the resources he has. He points to two file cabinets of “validated” gang members. The files haven’t been able to be updated in nearly two years.
“What’s hurting us is not having SROs in schools anymore,” Messina said. “We don’t have suppression and enforcement due to the budget and current patrol units are all over the city taking calls.”
In 2011, police believed there were over 200 members affiliated with the Norteño gang living in the city as well as over 90 members of the Sureño street gang; figures that were much higher than what was able to be documented by the department.
“We ask the citizens to contact police if they see anything suspicious or if they know anything about what happened,” said Messina. “They can be our eyes and ears at times.”