Santa Maria is not alone in 2015 homicide increase - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

Santa Maria is not alone in 2015 homicide increase

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The City of Santa Maria, which experienced a record 13 homicides in 2015, is not alone when it comes to such unprecedented violence. Another Central California city, Salinas, has also seen an uptick in violence, largely driven by gangs.

Both are agricultural cities with more than 100,000 people each and similarly diverse populations. But while Salinas and Santa Maria seem very similar, the situations each of their police departments face could not be more different.

The Santa Maria Police Department recently made 16 arrests in an investigation nicknamed "Operation Matador." Police identified the suspects as members of the MS-13 gang, which they say is responsible for the majority of gang-related homicides in Santa Maria last year.

The short-handed Salinas Police Department is still searching for clues in many of its 40 homicides and 150 shooting cases in 2015. Police there say most of those cases were driven by gang activity on the city's densely populated east side.

On top of that, Salinas had a steep increase in domestic and family violence, as well as instant disputes, such as a fist fight or a robbery that can escalate into a homicide.

City Manager Ray Corpuz considers addressing youth and gang violence a top priority.

"You might find in a two-bedroom, three families, and your family is working several jobs," Corpuz said. "It's not impossible with high poverty, that violence can take over easily."

"We do have a big gang problem here," Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin said. "So it's a hard town to police."

McMillin says the 2008 recession hit Salinas hard. The police department still feels some of its effects.

"We lost about 22 percent of our sworn staff here in the Salinas Police Department," McMillin said. "And we're still trying to recover from that."

Santa Maria currently has 124 sworn officers. Salinas has about 140 officers to cover a city with 50 percent more people.

They're so understaffed, they've had to dismantle all specialized forces, including the gang unit, to put everyone on patrol and out in the community.

"Right now, we're barely able to respond to 911 calls," McMillin said. "We're a crisis response team right now."

As bad as the violence is now, the fact that the police department has outgrown its dated facility, could be its saving grace.

"Right now, we're knocking on 200 stuffed into this building," McMillin said about the facility which was originally built for 60 employees.

The chief has plans for a state-of-the-art, 100,000 square foot police facility.

"Modern policing requires a lot of technology," McMillin said. "It requires a lot of science, a lot of lab space."

Just a handful of years ago, Santa Maria was in the same boat, with a tiny, old department and dreams of a new one that could serve community needs for decades into the future.

Salinas wants to take its plans a step further and put the new facility right in the middle of the town's troubled east side.

"If you put a nice police department in an area like that, it will attract other businesses," McMillin said. "Anchoring a redevelopment area with a police department makes a lot of sense."

Last year, Salinas passed a tax measure which provided the city with additional funding to hire new police officers. Corpuz says the city hopes to hire 37 new officers in the next three years.

However, McMillin says it's been a struggle to find qualified applicants who can get through background checks, and instill enough confidence to be given a badge and a gun. He says the Salinas Police Department has to compete for qualified candidates.

"We're near Santa Clara County and we compete in the marketplace for labor, including police officers," McMillin said. "And police departments in Santa Clara County just make a lot more money than we do and they don't, quite frankly, have to work as hard."

A man was shot and killed in Salinas as recently as this past Saturday, so police there are investigating the city's sixth homicide of the year.

Santa Maria has had six homicides in 2016, as well.

Corpuz says the City of Salinas participates in an organization called "Community Alliance for Safety and Peace." The organization includes other cities such as San Jose, which have similar issues with violence. Cities come together to find strategies on how to combat youth and gang violence.

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