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The Byrne Report

Chamber Plot

WATCH OUT LAW-ABIDING citizens of sleepy Petaluma: You are in danger! Hundreds of Latino gangsters are about to be driven out of Santa Rosa by that police department's souped-up gang task force. Where will they go? According to Petaluma Police Chief Steve Hood, it is "inevitable" that the deturfed gang bangers will flock to the restaurants and bars of this small--but recently revitalized--downtown. He wants to be "proactive" when the invasion happens--and for that, his department needs more money for "boots on the ground" and, while you're digging deep, a new police station.

The Petaluma Argus-Courier newspaper is very gung-ho on the notion of preemptively combating the youth of color who might flock to this "destination city" to join forces with its solid base of resident criminals. In June, the New York Times Co.-owned weekly reported that, according to the police, "the number of documented criminal street gang members living in Petaluma has risen to 60." When I asked Chief Hood if this factoid is true, he waffled. He said he has "no figure" on how many "district attorney-certified gang members" reside in Petaluma. "There are more than 60 people with gang affiliations," he remarked. But "affiliation" is a vague and meaningless term that smacks of racial profiling, not criminological investigation.

Nonetheless, Hood has assigned two full-time police officers to monitor the public schools. "They prevent fights, confiscate weapons and interdict crimes before they occur. They obtain a lot of information on gangs, like who is unhappy with whom."

In June, two members of the Petaluma City Council floated a way to finance a war on gangs before a meeting of the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce (of which the publisher of the Argus-Courier is a director). The Argus-Courier then ran a hysterical editorial promoting the councilmembers' proposal for a quarter-cent increase in the local sales tax to "contain" the "growing gang problem." The newspaper claimed that a gang migration to Petaluma will result from last year's sales-tax increase in Santa Rosa, some of which is targeted for increased gang suppression, and some for recreational activities for "at-risk" youth.

Excuse me. I lived in the Inner Mission in San Francisco for 17 years before moving to white-bread Petaluma. I regularly watched youngsters gun each other down in front of my apartment on 23rd Street and York. Any fool can see that Petaluma does not have a gang problem. Nor can the Argus-Courier point to any studies predicting that increased police harassment of kids and young adults chilling in the barrios and urban malls of Santa Rosa will "inevitably" result in the terrorization of patrons in the expensive eateries along Petaluma Boulevard.

Lt. Jerry Briggs of the Santa Rosa Police Department tells me that gang suppression in Sonoma County is not done by geographic area. It is undertaken county-wide by MAGNET (Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Team), a consortium of law-enforcement organizations specializing in making preemptive arrests of suspected gang members wherever they congregate. Ignoring relevant facts, the Argus-Courier is promoting a Wild West attitude of "Don't let the sun set on you in Petaluma, Holmes." The sales-tax proposal is nothing but paranoid posturing invented to advance the self-serving agenda of the Chamber of Commerce.

Last year, Petaluma budgeted $64 million for redevelopment and capital improvements. The downtown area sports a new movie theater and parking garage and several new housing and office developments. The city installed new sewers, streetlights and sidewalks. To help fund public infrastructure that makes private development possible, developers are supposed to pay "impact fees" that are set by the City Council. In this case, the developers received valuable exemptions from zoning restrictions and environmental review in return for the fees.

With physical growth comes a need for less visible improvement, including adding police officers to respond to an increase in traffic incidents and domestic violence. Petaluma's budget relies on tens of millions in potential developer fees to help offset these costs over the next decade. Of course, the developers prefer to keep the impact fees low and to use them only for amenities that increase the value of their private properties. Hiring police officers and building a new police station are not high priorities for developer bottom lines. But if these costs can be passed on to the public via a regressive sales tax--eureka!

Not surprisingly, the budgeted set-aside from developer fees for a new police station is a paltry $50,000. But instead of calling for a more rational use of developer fees, the Chamber of Commerce, the Argus-Courier and at least two councilmembers have set up a straw issue intended to scare the predominantly white, middle-class populace into paying for protection from a nonexistent invasion of Latino youth from the north.

Who is the real gang?

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From the August 3-9, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.

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