The Fresno Police Department is doing a lot of good things. Just take a look at the reduction in crime in the Tower District.
The popular entertainment neighborhood north of Downtown had no robberies in the 28-day period ending July 20. The Tower this year had been averaging two to three robberies during a typical 28-day reporting period.
No cars were stolen during the most recent 28-day period, compared to eight stolen cars in the preceding 28-day period. Police also report a 50% drop in cars being broken into.
Expanding the geography a bit, the Southwest policing district (which includes The Tower) had just one shooting in the nine-day period ending July 20. The Southwest district through early July had been averaging a shooting every 1.6 days.
What’s going on? Well, it all might be mere coincidence. Just like everything else in life, crime runs in cycles, right?
Or maybe it’s proof that energized Fresno police officers, teaming up with committed elected leaders at City Hall, can beat back the bad guys and make a positive difference in the lives of inner-city Fresnans.
I’m betting on the latter explanation.
“I think we’ve turned the corner,” says Lt. Mark Salazar, the Southwest District’s new commander. “But we’re not there yet. It’s just one month. I want to see us sustain it. If we do that for two or three months, then that’s an accomplishment.”
Here’s the context.
District 3 Council Member Oliver Baines and District 1 Council Member Esmeralda Soria each represents about half of The Tower. Baines has everything to the south of Olive Avenue. Soria has everything on the north side of Olive.
The Tower used to be blessed with the Central district station on Broadway, about a quarter-mile south of Olive. Then the Great Recession hit and City Hall had to tighten its belt. Chief Jerry Dyer as a cost-cutting move reduced the number of policing districts from five to four.
The Central district went bye-bye. So, too, did the Central district station on Broadway. The Tower continued to get police protection. But the constant parade of police cars moving through the neighborhood on their way to or from the Broadway station to an assignment obviously disappeared.
Law-abiding folks like the presence of cops.
Crime throughout Fresno generally went up over the past couple of years. The reasons are many. The same trend is afflicting many American cities.
The Tower had its share of crime problems. This caught the attention of Baines (himself a former Fresno cop) and Soria. They told Dyer during a council meeting: Do something about crime – and the citywide perception of crime – in The Tower.
Tower residents delivered the same message to the Chief during a community meeting at Heaton Elementary School.
At the same time City Hall finances improved. The police force several years ago had fewer than 650 sworn officer positions. Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s 2016-17 budget will fund 801 cops by next June.
The encouragement from Baines and Soria, combined with a boost in resources, inspired Dyer to craft a department reorganization. The plan has yet to be fully revealed to the public. But Dyer did announce that he would restore the Central policing district.
That means the rebirth of Central’s station.
But the Central station, when it goes live, won’t be on Broadway. It will be in Manchester Center, at Blackstone and Shields avenues. Close to The Tower, but not close enough to satisfy Baines, Soria and their Tower constituents.
Two key events happened in June.
First, Baines and Soria added funds to the new budget for a police substation in The Tower. Actually, two new police substations are coming. Council President Paul Caprioglio added money for a substation in El Dorado Park, west of Fresno State’s Bulldog Stadium.
Swearengin agreed with both substations.
Second, Dyer made a personnel change. A mid-year retirement left a vacancy at the top of the Southwest policing district’s chain of command. Salazar at the time was commander of the Southeast district. On the afternoon of June 27, Dyer moved Salazar into the Southwest district’s commander spot.
The Chief no longer opens his monthly CrimeView sessions to reporters. Too bad, because the 90-minute meetings often revealed the command attributes that Dyer values most.
It’s enough here to say 1.) the Chief wants district commanders to aggressively crunch data and turn that analysis into crime-fighting initiatives, 2.) the Chief wants district commanders who can shoulder the considerable pressure of making tough strategy decisions, 3.) Southeast is no picnic, but Salazar never failed at these CrimeView sessions to have an initiative or two to describe and trumpet.
Then came the late July report out of the Southwest district headquarters: No robberies or stolen cars in The Tower over a 28-day period; shootings down dramatically throughout the Southwest district.
Dyer “knows how I am,” Salazar told me on July 21. “He knows I’m going to look at crime issues. We’re not going to wait around. We’re going to initiate. If we get other units to help us, that’s even better.”
Salazar, 44, has been a Fresno cop for 20 years.
“I have a very good understanding of West Fresno,” Salazar said. “That’s where I was as a rookie officer. When MAGEC (Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium) was first formed, I was part of that unit. I was part of the Violent Crimes Suppression Unit when it was around. I was mainly in Southwest Fresno. When I promoted, my first tactical assignment was the Southwest District Crime Suppression Team, and I worked under Captain (Greg) Garner. This was back in 2004, 2005. We had a lot of success at that point.”
Salazar spent seven years as a homicide/robbery commander. He was involved in more than 1,400 operations, many of them in Southwest.
“Chief would ask, ‘What motivates you? Because you’re very motivated.’” Salazar said. “I said, ‘The kid who lives in the 400 block of West Strother (near Chandler airport) should feel as free and safe as the kid living at Champlain and Perrin. That’s what motivates me.’ For me, West Fresno is home. So, when I came over here I was glad. Because, directly or indirectly, I’ve been here for years.
“The twist is, what Captain Garner was doing years ago, I’m now doing. Which is building relationships with pastors and the different organizations. Because Southwest Fresno is a difficult district to command. You have violent crime and you have gangs. You have special districts like Calwa and Downtown and The Mural. You have faith-based organizations. I enjoy it.”
Salazar believes success in police work depends on commitment and teamwork. He also believes in setting a good example among his fellow officers.
“They see me,” Salazar said. “I’ll work days, I’ll work nights, I’ll work weekends. I’m not in my office 8 to 4, Monday through Friday. Ultimately, I’m accountable for Southwest Fresno. And I have good people around me. I’ve been lucky to have very talented sergeants, detectives and officers to work with.”
As far at The Tower goes, Salazar knows his time is limited. The Tower soon will be part of the restored Central district. Salazar said his team’s goals over the next few months are to get the Tower substation open (it’ll take up about 2,000 square feet in the old Fulton’s Folly building on Olive) and keep a lid on crime.
“My goal is get crime trending the right way, build relationships and get this (substation) off the ground,” Salazar said. “Then we’ll hand it off to Central.”