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Task Force Seeks Volunteers
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Interim Oakdale Police Chief Lester Jenkins, shown at Mondays vandalism summit, pointed out key data gleaned from police databases regarding the vandalism problem plaguing the city. A task force has been formed to brainstorm solutions to the problem. Anyone interested in joining the task force is urged to contact Ramona Howard at 209-416-8256. - photo by Kim Van Meter/The Leader

In an attempt to fight against the rising tide of vandalism and graffiti that is washing over the City of Oakdale and leaving behind an undesirable eyesore, a newly formed task force is seeking volunteers to put their heads together to find workable solutions.
The first vandalism summit was hosted Monday evening, Feb. 27 at the community center and while there were approximately 30 community members present, more are needed to help put a stop to the growing scourge of malicious mischief taking over the city.
Interim Police Chief Lester Jenkins shared some hard data collected by the police department so attendees could get a picture of what the city is up against.
In 2010, there were 344 reported incidents of vandalism but in 2011, there were 537 incidents, which represented a significant rise, said Jenkins.
Of those incidents, 133 of those numbers in 2010 represented acts of graffiti; but in 2011, the number increased to 237, which was a 78 percent increase from the previous year.
The cost of vandalism to the city in 2010 was approximately $143,122; in 2011, $91.931.
“Gang graffiti is on the rise,” Jenkins acknowledged, adding that more gang members have infiltrated Oakdale than ever before, creating a turf war for territory. “We’ve got a serious problem but nothing like Ceres or Modesto.”
Losing the School Resource Officer (at a shared cost between the school district and the police department) was a big loss, Jenkins said.
“We had more arrests when we had an officer on campus. We don’t have the communication that we once had,” Jenkins said.
However, at a cost of $230,000 per year at a time when both the police department and the school district were forced to economize, neither could afford shouldering the financial burden of the program.
Mike Hancock, a member of the TAG (Team-up Against Graffiti) volunteer program, has seen the number of gang tagging increasing as rival gangs vie for territory and Oakdale is not immune to this type of tagging.
“We were really caught by surprise by the rise in vandalism,” Hancock admitted.
Jenkins explained the gang tagging mentality to the group, likening it to the behavior dogs exhibit when marking territory with their urine.
“The best way to eliminate graffiti is to cover it up immediately,” Jenkins said. “It’s really important to get in there and cover it up.”
Case in point, the Oakdale Joint Unified School District has a strict policy of removing graffiti before the students arrive on campus. In order to do this, a janitor does a perimeter search in the early morning hours before school starts and if any is found, it is promptly covered. Doing so, according to school officials, has drastically reduced the amount of graffiti found on school grounds.
Also, installing flood lamps in certain areas that were previously hit hard by vandals has nearly eliminated the problem.
However, more citizens need to get on board to truly affect this type of issue, said Hancock.
Businesses, already caught in the grip of a down economy, are facing additional issues with the vandalism and if a solution isn’t found, they may leave Oakdale; such as Sierra Railroad, which has been hit multiple times with serious and costly vandalism.
In December 2011, vandals attacked the Sierra Railroad Dinner Train, breaking six windows and causing $5,000 worth of damage. The damage was so severe that it nearly caused Sierra Railroad President Chris Hart to cancel the Christmas train that was scheduled to roll with 230 children because they almost couldn’t find a glass company to repair the damage in time.
“If you’re struggling to make ends meet and suddenly, you’re having to shell out $1,000 or more, it takes money right out of your wallet. And when tagging and graffiti makes your town look rough, people don’t want to stop when passing through,” Jenkins said.
Mayor Pat Paul agreed, saying, “This is not only a police problem. We as citizens need to care about what’s going on. We need to stand up as citizens and take back our city.”
One of the glaring differences between Oakdale and other neighboring cities, said Paul, is the lack of an ordinance prohibiting public drinking.
“Come on, people. We are the only city that allows public drinking. We need a drinking ordinance in Oakdale,” she said. “You as citizens can come to the City Council and demand an ordinance prohibiting public drinking in our parks.”
However, citizen Allison Clark believed the vandalism problem stemmed from the local youth having nowhere to go recreationally.
“If we don’t do something for the kids, we’re going to lose them. Those gang members are sweet talkers,” Clark warned.
Clark stated the city needed more activities for the local youth, including a new skate park.
In response, Paul stated the city should hear in a few weeks whether or not they’d won a $3 million grant to restore the skate park.
Also, Oakdale Joint Unified School District Superintendent Marc Malone stated the schools have after school activities available, but it is not mandatory to attend.
“We have programs in place but not every student chooses to use them,” Malone pointed out.
The brainstorming session introduced some interesting options, including but not limited to:
• Stiffening vandalism laws
• Creating a city-wide volunteer neighborhood patrol
• Purchasing and installing surveillance cameras
• Establishing and enforcing tough city-wide curfew laws
• Educating at the elementary school level about vandalism prevention
• Harden soft vandalism targets
• Eliminating alcoholic beverages from city parks
• Change park hours, similar to those in Burchell Park for all city parks

The task force is looking for more ideas and more volunteers to help get things moving in the right direction. Anyone who was unable to attend the vandalism summit but would like to get involved, is urged to contact Ramona Howard at 209-416-8256.