It's the kind of program that police support as they try to chip away at the growing presence of gangs in the Tri-City area.
That concept is behind The Community Safety Team, an experimental task force launched today by the Police Department in an effort to bring police and the community together to combat crime, including gang-related incidents.
Although the team's three officers and a sergeant plan to use street enforcement as one of their tools, the idea is to stop crimes before they happen byreaching out to young would-be lawbreakers through education and intervention.
As the name implies, the Community Safety Team will focus on keeping Newark's crime rate low and its schools and streets safe, said Sgt. Andrew Bidou, who designed the program.
The officers are teaming up with the Cedar Boulevard Neighborhood Church this summer to raise awareness about youth Internet safety and risks for new drivers. They plan to be at football games, dances and festivals.
But keeping young people, especially junior high school students, from joining gangs is a priority.
The main prong of the team's education and intervention efforts will be aimed at junior high and high school students, their parents and educators.
That makes the program unique in the Tri-City area. A special counselor in the Fremont Police Department works with minors arrested for minor crimes, but the department lacks enough officers to reach out because of budget cuts, Sgt. Chris Mazzone said.
School counselors also will be part of the effort for the first time, as will parents. Educators and law enforcement said it is crucial to teach parents what the telling signs are that their child may be involved in a gang, or edging toward it.
Parents simply don't have the information to know what it means when their child starts wearing red or blue the colors of the area's two most prevalent gangs, the Norteos and the Sureos, said Sonia Torres, a counselor at Newark Memorial.
The team will focus on parents who are not fluent in English and unfamiliar with the U.S. teen culture, such as recent immigrants from Latin America. Latinos make up 30 percent of Newark's 43,000 population, and most gang members in the city are Latino, police said. The team will have a Spanish-speaking officer, Sal Sandoval.
Immigrants who don't speak English are reluctant to reach out for help, and illegal immigrants are "deathly afraid," Torres said.
In addition, they may mistakenly see their child's behavior or dress as successful assimilation instead of a danger sign, said Lucia Gutierrez, director of the Ash Street Summer Program for youth. The 21-year-old saw her own parents, immigrants from Mexico, grapple with the experience.
Gangs are less visible in Newark than in Fremont or in Union City, police said. Crime also is lower, although some Newark residents say it is rising because the population is growing. Violent and property crimes in fact have decreased since 1985, when 36,000 people lived in the city. There were 142 violent crimes and 2,049 property crimes in 2004.
But Bidou said the Police Department wants to be proactive, rather than wait until crime worsens.
He predicted that results won't be immediate or easy to measure because prevention is the focus instead of street enforcement, which results in arrests. The team, however, will track its activities and report to Lt. Jim Leal and, ultimately, Chief Ray Samuels.
The team's approach is an open-mindedness to learn what will work "for the long-term health of the city," Bidou said. "We want to figure out what works in Newark and capitalize on the success."
Staff writer Angela Woodall covers Newark and Ohlone College. She can be reached at (510) 353-7004 or at email@example.com.