The Coastal Post - April 2000

San Rafael Police Chief Is Changing Things Around

By Karen Nakamura

There are two prevalent attitudes in policing today. One is the corruption found in the Los Angeles and New York fiascoes. The second, thankfully, is what's going on in our very own County. It's time to give credit where credit is due.

San Rafael's Police Chief Cam Sanchez has brought numerous changes to the City since taking office in 1997. When he walked in the door, there was a virtual siege mentality in the department with regards to the Canal neighborhood. At the time, the area was inundated with immigrants, both legal and illegal. Among them were Ethiopians, Vietnamese and Haitians fleeing in rickety boats across harrowing seas. By far the largest number were Latinos running from death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador or desperate poverty in Mexico. Their numbers swelled by the day.

The situation frightened many Anglo residents, especially the more conservative and sheltered. Their fears of increased crime were, to a certain extent, confirmed by an outbreak of gang activity, but not in over-all immigrant crime. Human nature dictates that's the way it would shake out. The adult men were working, or, at least, looking for work. Teens can be punks. It's hormonal. If they don't get too carried away, they grow out of it.

Citing differences that didn't exist and lacking compassion, conservatives launched an aggressive picketing campaign against men standing on street corners looking for work and stepped up harassment of Latinos in general. This effort was compatible with Canal policing policies. Police presence was stepped up to a fevered pace. The Canal's police budget was approximately $2,000,000 a year while the rest of the budget allotted the Canal was around $150,000.

At the same time these two elements were harassing men trying to feed their families, gang activity was quietly taking hold. With only two incidents reported in the 1st quarter of 1996, the number escalated to eight in the 4th. In the 2nd quarter of 1997, when Chief Sanchez took office, there were 22, more than twice the previous quarter. The numbers then hovered in the 20s until the 1st quarter of 1998 when the number was 17. Incidents then shot back up to 28 in the 2nd. However, from the 3rd quarter of 1998 through the 3rd of 1999, those numbers never reached above 19. In the 4th quarter of 1999, the number had plunged to nine. Total Canal gang incidents for 1999 were 62. The rest of the city came in at 28.

So other than a national trend towards lower crimes rates, what caused the reduction? Under Mayor Boro and strengthened by Canal advocates Councilmember Cyr Miller and new City Manager Rod Gould, the City Council decided to make the Canal a priority. Its approach was to solve problems by humane means. They set in motion a series of meetings with community leaders and outreach programs. This attitude was adopted by the police when Chief Sanchez took over and began a series of policy changes.

Community policing was incorporated in March of 1999. Sgt. Jim Kelley heads the unit and has established a substation in the Canal. Understanding the need for a diversified force, Chief Sanchez hired more minority officers, four women and four Latinos. Other officers often speak Spanish. In fact, every shift has at least one fluent officer. Since 1997, Sanchez reports, "We've hired five officers who are bi-lingual. Officer Tom Sabido traveled extensively in Mexico and his family owned a business there. He speaks Spanish better than I do. Then there's Jim Correa who grew up in San Rafael and went to Davidson."

A full-time homeless officer, Dr. Joel Fay, clinical psychologist, was hired two months ago. Part of his assignment is directing the homeless to services, even giving them a ride if they need it. Chief Sanchez emphasizes to his officers that "Homelessness is not a crime."

Don't assume that Chief Sanchez is a liberal pawn. He is first and foremost a police officer doing a professional job. It's just that he's incorporating a policy of tolerance and respect and the numbers show its working. Finishing an insightful interview, Sanchez added.

"The City Council ultimately has to approve my plans. It comes down to quality of life issues. Community Policing is partnering with landlords and business owners to clean up the neighborhood. For example, abandon cars and graffiti are magnets for crime. There's the Learning Center at Pickleweed and a new Boy Scout troop. Service organizations are doing a lot. We've held productive meetings with Latinos, Asians, Haitians, the gay and lesbian community and others. We're doing a lot of things differently. What's great is the community has jumped on the band wagon. All these things have contributed to the turn around."

Chief Sanchez paused a moment and continued. "In my view, the biggest issue is providing services to the entire city equally."

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