ESCONDIDO — In his 17 years working as an officer for the Escondido Police Department (EPD), Detective Jeff Valdivia has noticed a correlation between gangs and dilapidated neighborhoods.
“Gangs come from rundown neighborhoods, and gangs run down neighborhoods,” he said.
For most of his career with EPD, Valdivia has focused on the gang side of that equation and is currently a detective for the gang division.
But now, he and the rest of the EPD are developing a new approach to deterring local crime over the long term by fixing up neighborhoods.
In addition to investigating crimes, gathering gang intelligence, and making arrests, EPD’s community outreach project will focus on tree trimming, fixing streetlights, and tidying yards in a specific Escondido neighborhood.
“Any time you have an area that’s not dark, not covered in bushes, not riddled with graffiti, we own that place again,” explained EPD Chief Craig Carter.
A trial run of the new program, called Neighborhood Transformation Project (NTP), will be carried out in the “Old Escondido Neighborhood” area between Centre City Parkway and Kalmia Street over the next 12 to 18 months.
Carter presented the project to neighborhood residents at Central Elementary School on April 3.
EPD is working in partnership with community members, nonprofits, and city services to orchestrate efforts to beautify the neighborhood and attract businesses to empty storefronts along Escondido Boulevard.
The city’s neighborhood services division has plans to help Old Escondido residents address code violations for homes and businesses as well as host a clean up event for residents to dispose of large waste like broken furniture. The division will also strive to set up a neighborhood group and sponsor neighborhood events, including block parties.
Carter said Old Escondido was selected as the first NTP site because of the neighborhood’s need for physical repairs. He also said the area was ideal for a trial run because it does not have high levels of criminal activity compared to other areas in the city.
He added that he hopes that NTP will open a communication line and foster more trust between local residents and business owners, acknowledging that law enforcement is more effective with help from the community.
“When we have neighbors who came out and told us information and told us where the problem is, we were more successful,” he said.
EPD has also launched a NTP website for residents to easily report non-emergency problems like graffiti and broken streetlights.
Residents said they were hopeful that the proposed improvements to streets, homes, and businesses would make a positive change in their neighborhood.
“They had to do something. The gangs and drugs are really out of hand,” said local Jose Zapien, who has lived in Escondido since 1972.
Agner Medrano, a former gang member who leads gang prevention efforts as a pastor for Victory Outreach Escondido, said that street enhancements actually could have an impact on gang activity.
“As a gang member, you want to be in hidden places,” Medrano explained. Trimming trees and better lighting eliminates some of those concealed places.
“All those little things make a difference,” he said.
Despite the optimism of local residents and community organizations, funding these improvements may be problematic.
Escondido’s street and park maintenance superintendent Dan Young said that about a third of the city’s streetlights are in disrepair and with limited budget and staff it takes time for the lights to get fixed.
EPD and other city departments intend to pursue grants to fund the hoped-for improvements.
Carter readily acknowledged that NTP is an untested experiment for Escondido.
“I don’t know how this is going to turn out,” he said. But he added that without trying something new to address crime, nothing would improve.
“If I don’t take a risk (on a new program), then we don’t get improvements. I hate status quo.”
He said EPD’s increased focus in Old Escondido has already yielded some positive results. As of the April 3 meeting, there had not been any cars stolen in the neighborhood in the past four weeks.