Little towns, big problems

Gridley and Biggs look for solutions to gang violence

GANG BUSTERS Rick Cunningham, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Gridley, responds to a community member’s concerns about gang violence, while volunteer Bernice Caballero writes those concerns down, at a packed community meeting in Gridley Tuesday.

GANG BUSTERS Rick Cunningham, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Gridley, responds to a community member’s concerns about gang violence, while volunteer Bernice Caballero writes those concerns down, at a packed community meeting in Gridley Tuesday.

Photo By Tom Angel

Blame the media:
Some officials, while stressing that they are taking the problem very seriously, privately acknowledged that Gridley’s gang problem is perhaps not the crisis that the media have made it out to be. With some reports offering the view that gang violence in Gridley is “spiraling out of control,” it should come as no surprise that several attendees at Tuesday’s meeting said they thought news reporters were out to “give Gridley a bad name.”

The capacity crowd that turned out Tuesday to a community meeting focusing on Gridley’s and Biggs’ gang problems was told right off the bat not to expect any solutions to materialize that night. The meeting, said Biggs Mayor Sharleta Callaway, was “just a seed, just a start” in finding community-based solutions to dealing with gang violence.

After weeks of ingesting media reports that the streets of Gridley and Biggs are crawling with violent gang members, more than 600 people filled a multi-purpose room at Gridley High School in hopes of venting their frustrations and finding out what authorities were doing to solve the problem.

Instead of being allowed to shout questions from the floor, as in a regular town-hall-style meeting, many attendees seemed puzzled and confused when they were asked to break into small groups and voice their concerns to a facilitator, who would then write down a short synopsis of what they said.

Those concerns were later shared back with the entire audience and are now being compiled into a citizen newsletter, which will be distributed to city residents within a few weeks. The newsletter will also include tips and suggestions on how ordinary citizens can get involved and help police deal with gang issues.

While one man was overheard griping about how the process was “a bunch of touchy-feely bullshit,” other participants said they were satisfied that their concerns were being listened to and hoped that greater community involvement would help alleviate what everyone agreed was a serious and growing gang problem among young people in Gridley and Biggs.

Police and other public officials said the latest spate of violence appeared to be the result of a feud based mostly on pride and bragging rights, as opposed to a full-scale battle over turf or drug money. The most serious recent incident, the downtown, broad-daylight fatal shooting of acknowledged gang member Miguel Solorio on June 4, aroused scads of media attention and heightened residents’ fears over public safety.

Fearing that violence would escalate last week because Solorio’s funeral and several high-school graduation celebrations would be taking place, Storne solicited help from neighboring law enforcement agencies, including Butte County sheriff’s deputies and the California Highway Patrol. The increased police presence, which added about 800 man-hours to county and state police budgets, virtually shut down Gridley and Biggs over the weekend but had the desired effect of stifling any retributive gang attacks.

It is unclear at this point how widespread gang activity really is in Gridley/Biggs, a tiny farming community of about 7,000 people. In the last four years, there have 15 serious incidents involving gangs there. Of those incidents, three have resulted in death, 10 were assaults ending in injury, one was a kidnapping and one was a drive-by shooting in which one person was wounded. Only five of the victims in those cases were not gang members themselves.

According to Gridley Police Chief Jack Storne, authorities have obtained convictions in one-quarter of the cases, with four more currently in the court system. Three cases are still being investigated, two were closed due to the non-cooperation of victims and one suspect was acquitted due to an unreliable witness.

“I think the department’s been very effective and successful in those cases,” Storne said. “We’re doing the best we can with the resources we have.”

Still, Storne acknowledged, “It’s a growing problem. You chase [gangs] out of one area, and they move to another. Ultimately, it is a community problem, and the answers need to come from the community.”

Storne, while not seeking to dismiss the impact of gangs on his overextended police force, guessed there may be as few as 15 or 20 hardcore gang members in the area. With only 15 sworn officers, as few as two cops may be on duty at any one time in Gridley/ Biggs, which leaves little opportunity for the kind of intense, beat-walking approach that gang experts say produces results. But with two officers expected to be added to the force soon, Storne said a greater emphasis would be placed on community policing, which involves officers making personal contacts with gang members in hopes of producing informants and gathering intelligence.

Storne said he also hoped that meetings like Tuesday’s might give rise to community programs that educate parents on gang issues and give teenagers something to do other than join gangs.