Mayor Kevin Johnson finally realizes gang prevention strategy several years after young mother's death inspired him

Sacramento city and county leaders will team up to redirect at-risk youth toward positive alternatives

Nearly five years after Monique Nelson threw herself over her baby boy and took a gangster's bullet straight to the heart, a political response inspired by her memory has finally stirred to life.

Buoyed by $1 million in Measure U sales tax revenues, the Sacramento City Council last Tuesday approved the first-year goals of its newly re-established Gang Prevention and Intervention Task Force.

One year is all the Measure U monies buy right now, though officials sketched out countywide objectives that would keep the task force busy for the next five years. Whether it still exists in the year 2020 will depend on the ability of the task force’s 27-member policy board to secure additional resources and grants.

But that’s for the future. And the present is already precarious enough.

This is actually the council’s second stab at establishing a gang-prevention body. Mayor Kevin Johnson spearheaded the first effort following the December 2010 killing of Nelson, a young mother who caught stray gunfire during a gang-related shootout outside of a south Sacramento barbershop. Nelson’s final act was to shield her infant son, absorbing the bullet that raced toward him.

“You know, I think all of us remember the barbershop shooting that took place,” Johnson said during the September 15 council meeting. “And when we lose lives in Sacramento, that affects all of us.”

Johnson convened stakeholder meetings and community forums in the 18 months following Nelson’s death to develop a plan to intercept children before they get sucked into Sacramento’s gang culture. In 2012, one month before voters approved Measure U’s half-cent sales tax, the council adopted the mayor’s plan.

Then it sat on a shelf for three years.

“We couldn’t get it in the end zone,” Johnson admitted last week.

That’s not to say that individual gang-prevention strategies weren’t pursued in the interim. The city recently completed two successful summer-night events geared for the neighborhoods of south Sacramento, Del Paso Heights and Strawberry Manors, all plagued by gang problems. Meanwhile, separate police and county sheriff’s department’s programs have attempted to reach at-risk kids using different methods. Then there’s the countywide effort to address disproportionate child deaths in the African American community, with gang intervention being a primary piece of that.

But Councilman Rick Jennings, who led the task force reclamation project, said the feedback from various stakeholders at the city and county levels was that these efforts were disjointed and uncoordinated. “Also, there’s no oversight or accountability and, many times, the necessary partners are not at the table,” he added.

Another common theme from those meetings was that the work ends when the money runs out.

The new, multiyear operating plan is supposed to reverse that course. It calls for surveying neighborhoods for resources and needs, establishing community-based violence response teams, and redoubling efforts on education and employment as alternatives to gang involvement. Seven neighborhoods were chosen to be the focus of the first year: Del Paso Heights, Oak Park, Meadowview and Valley Hi in the city; and Rio Linda, Arden Arcade and North Highlands in the unincorporated county.

As such, the task force members represent a broad swath of professions, covering law enforcement, education, health care and the religious sector.

Chief Probation Officer Lee Seale thanked Jennings for looking outside the city’s borders in developing the coalition. “We see thousands of kids who are on supervised probation countywide. We know the city of Sacramento has a large portion of those, in fact most of those kids,” he told council members. “We have really an opportunity to touch those kids and deliver the kinds of services—intervention, prevention, treatment, everything we can do to turn around lives before … it’s too late.”

As for what derailed this same effort four years ago, Councilwoman Angelique Ashby said a lack of money was to blame.

But so was a lack of prioritization. The council decided against fully funding the gang prevention strategy during budget hearings in 2013, and was reluctant to dedicate Measure U resources before sales tax projections were proven. The task force quietly dissolved as a result.

In at least one case, the delay proved fatal.

On September 1, Zai Chao Wu succumbed to a gunshot wound he suffered a day earlier inside his Fruitridge Manor apartment on Lemon Hill Avenue. According to Councilman Eric Guerra, in whose district Wu resided, the 18-year-old was at home at the time, heard gunfire and stood up.

“And it’s that kind of tragedy from us not engaging in this earlier,” Guerra said last week. “But we’re doing it now. We’re doing it now.”