Lisa Smittcamp’s next political campaign and public safety policy took center stage Thursday morning at Pardini’s.
An estimated 200 community leaders, Smittcamp supporters and family members attended a fundraiser for Fresno County’s district attorney.
Smittcamp already has her eye on winning a second four-year term when 2018 rolls around.
“It is such an honor and such a privilege to be the district attorney,” Smittcamp said.
Campaign financing was the reason for the eggs and orange juice, but it was law and order that got everyone’s attention.
Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer directed the show. He also set the table, so to speak, for Smittcamp’s pitch by delivering a review of the crime landscape in Fresno. The logic was obvious: Dyer and his officers nab the bad guys; Smittcamp and her lawyers prosecute the bad guys. They’re a team.
If budgets and politics and protests make life miserable for the former, then life is miserable for the latter.
“These have been some of the most challenging times that we have faced in law enforcement,” Dyer said. “The last eight years, particularly, have been difficult for us in terms of the recession and what has occurred as a result of that.”
The department in 2009 had 849 sworn police officers. As of March 2, 2017, Dyer said, the department had 759.
“It has been a challenge to keep pace with the work load,” Dyer said. “I know something similar has happened with the District Attorney’s Office.”
This challenge “has been compounded by some of the things we’ve seen come out of California,” Dyer said.
These “things” include various policies from Sacramento politicians and voter-approved propositions that empty prisons.
“When you look at all of those things that weaken the criminal justice system, it has had an impact on all of us in our community, not just in our work load but in victimization,” Dyer said.
The Chief said today’s California prisons hold 40,000 fewer inmates than they did five years ago.
“The question is often asked: ‘Where are those individuals?’” Dyer said. “They are in your backyards, they’re in your cars, they’re in your homes. What used to be a felony is now a misdemeanor; what used to be a misdemeanor is now an infraction; what used to an infraction is now legal. So, we are definitely going in the wrong direction in the State of California. In fact, I’ve never seen the pendulum of justice swing so far to the left so fast and stay so long. It is something that has been a challenge for all of us. But I am still optimistic about where we’re heading in the future.”
Another challenge is the growing public scrutiny of peace officers, Dyer said.
“There has been no shortage of criticism of law enforcement,” Dyer said. “And, in fact, that has extended all the way to the White House, where, over the last eight years we did not have the level of support of law enforcement and the criminal justice system that we would like to have.
“Our officers have to feel supported if they’re going to go out every day and keep our citizens safe. And some officers across this country are starting to shy away from the proactive enforcement, unfortunately. We see that in Chicago, where the murder rate is the highest they’ve had in more than 30 years. I have not seen that in Fresno, and I do not believe we will see that in Fresno for a very good reason – our officers feel absolutely supported by all of you. They know that they can do their job day in and day out.”
Dyer said law enforcement in a democracy should be the people’s business. But, he added, the people must understand what it means to be a peace officer in an often dangerous world.
“As I often say, police officers are expected to know the unknown, to see the unseen and then to make split-second decisions with limited facts knowing full well they’re going to be second-guessed after the fact by those individuals who have all the facts,” Dyer said.
An officer who makes the wrong split-second decision, Dyer said, may “not come home at all.”
Dyer said he is proud to serve in the Fresno Police Department.
“I am proud to wear the uniform and proud to wear the badge,” Dyer said. “And I thank God for those individuals who are willing to step up and do that.”
The audience applauded.
“Crime has increased across this nation over the last few years,” Dyer said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s not surprising. It’s not surprising when you look at it from the demographics, it’s not surprising when you look at it from the weakening of the criminal justice system – the number of people we used to have in prison that are not in prison today. Fresno is not any different. We have seen our increases.
In this past week, we had 19 shootings in our city. But I want to tell you why we had 19 shootings.”
Dyer said his department and other law enforcement agencies teamed up in the past year to essentially put two major gangs – the Dog Pound Gang and the Strother Gang – out of business.
“They were very wealthy. And the way that they got wealthy in the Dog Pound Gang was in running prostitutes across this country,” Dyer said.
The gangs were big into human trafficking, Dyer said. The gangs preyed on girls “14 or 15 years and convinced them that they were about to enter a better lifestyle, that they were going to be cared for. And they turned these girls into prostitutes. Really they are victims. As a result, they were making significant amounts of money – millions of dollars.”
Among other things, Dyer said, this money paid for the arming of young and violent gangbangers. Dyer said Smittcamp played a pivotal role in securing court approval to engage in wiretaps of gang leaders.
“The reason for the 19 shootings? We have a lot of individuals that are trying to make a name for themselves,” Dyer said. “They’re in gangs, trying to establish territory and to take over what they call ‘the track.’ The track is prostitution. They’re vowing to be the next Dog Pound Gang, the next Strother Gang. And that’s why we’re having some of the feuding.
“But I can tell you that we launched a gang operation this week on Monday when we recognized the trends that are involved. We launched a gang operation this week and we are taking all of our proactive units and going after these individuals with a vengeance, going into their neighborhoods, targeting individuals, targeting gangs, targeting the times in which they’re most active. Monday – Tuesday – Wednesday – not a single shooting in our city. We’re heading in the right direction. We’re going to continue with that.”
Dyer said Mayor Lee Brand has made public safety the top priority of his administration.
“I am confident that is the direction we’re going to go,” Dyer said. “And as we rebuild, you’re going to see increased levels of citizen safety in our city.”
Dyer said Smittcamp is another reason for his optimism.
“We have an incredible working relationship,” Dyer said.
He added, with a laugh, that they occasionally have their disagreements. He said they’re brief in duration.
“Thank you, Lisa, for opening that door of cooperation with your office,” Dyer said. “I’m grateful and thankful that she is the D.A. for Fresno County. She is a prosecutor and not a politician.”
Smittcamp began her remarks by acknowledging people in the audience who are vital in her personal and professional lives.
She described her mother, Ann Sondergaard, as “my heart and soul. I always say she taught me the art of tough. She taught me how to be strong. She taught me how to care. She taught me that every morning when I wake up I have a God-given responsibility to do something to make the world a better place. She bred the prosecutor in me.”
Smittcamp said her husband, Brent, understands the time-chewing nature of her job.
“He never complains when there is a Save Mart chicken on the countertop,” she said.
Smittcamp asked her colleagues at D.A.’s office to stand. A fair number of audience members were soon on their feet.
“They are the source of my power. They are the reason I do what I do,” Smittcamp said. “This is not something that can be done alone. We have some of the hardest working people in the D.A.’s office. It is such a proud and humbling honor for me to be their leader for this period of time.”
Finally, there were the people sitting at a table directly in front of the speaker’s podium. Smittcamp described them as her “Mommy Mafia” – close friends who help her juggle the demands of home and office.
“You ladies are such an inspiration to me,” Smittcamp said.
Then it was time to get down to business. Like Dyer, Smittcamp’s business is simple to describe – maintaining public safety and social order.
The variety and scale of crime in Fresno County makes fulfilling that mission a big challenge.
“I can clear a cocktail party table probably quicker than anybody else in this room if we want to start talking about what really goes on in Fresno,” Smittcamp said. “It’s probably why I don’t sleep a whole lot and it’s probably why I worry a lot and I’m kind of paranoid.”
Smittcamp said she takes all necessary precautions to ensure her personal safety. After all, she’s the one who heads the team that prosecutes many of the gang members rounded up by Dyer’s officers.
“I have to say, it (the security effort) is a huge burden for me and it is a huge burden for my family to have to endure that,” Smittcamp said. “But every time I think about it and every time I pray about it, the answer is always the same.
“Do I get down? Yes. Do I get scared? Yes – a lot. But every time, I pray about it. And every time I ask the Big Man – and I know Jerry thinks he’s the big man but really it’s God, God is the Big Man – when I ask the Big Man: ‘Is this what you want for me? Is this where I’m supposed to be? When I’m out protecting the community for other children; when I’m out working a deal with Fresno Unified to get a truancy prosecutor so that we can keep kids in school; when I’m out at Alice’s school talking to at-risk youth who are trying to get their GEDs and move on with their lives; when I’m having meetings with Jim Yovino at the Fresno County Office of Education figuring out how we can get people and children to respect Fresno so that we don’t get any more customers in the criminal justice system; and (when) I’m out doing that for kids, am I hurting my own kids?’
“The answer is always the same, because sometimes I go to bed tired and I pray, and I fall asleep in prayer, and I wake up – I’m rejuvenated again. Because the answer is: ‘This is my calling.’”
Smittcamp was closing fast. She knew people had to get to work. She again praised her colleagues in the D.A.’s Office – “people who are fighting for you, even though you may not realize it.”
She ended with a brief look at the main thing: Civilization.
“Whatever you’re doing, you can’t do what you do if you’re not safe,” Smittcamp said. “You can’t do what you do if you don’t feel secure. You can’t shine. You can’t worship. You can’t work. You can’t function if you’re not safe.
“That’s why every day I hear my mom’s voice. She says, ‘Lisa, you have a God-given responsibility to wake up and do something to make the world a better place.’ That’s what I do.
“And I can do it because of people like you, who believe in me and support me and come to these breakfasts and come to these events – because you care. Knowing that is huge for me. It’s what motivates me, it’s what fuels me. And it’s what keeps us all going. Thank you so very much.”
I don’t know how much money Smittcamp cleared for Campaign 2018. I do know she left this particular fundraiser with a standing ovation.