Life In Escondido: Solving the gang problem

Community programs help keep kids out of trouble
Posted at 6:00 AM, Jul 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-26 10:56:08-04

ESCONDIDO, Calif. (KGTV) - As Al Owens watches kids play basketball, he knows they're learning more than just jump shots.

"It's a thing to keep the kids busy because if we don't keep them occupied, then somebody else will occupy their time," he says.

Owens is a retired police officer and the director of the Escondido Police Athletic League, or PAL. It's an after-school program designed to help steer kids in the community away from gangs and crime.

"We're putting an impact on it," he says. "It's making these kids positive and showing that police aren't your enemies. We're your friends, and the community is here for you."

That type of community engagement has been critical as the city fights back against a gang problem that has existed for decades.

"It's getting them early, and getting them often," says Escondido Police Interim Chief David Cramer, "Before they get too involved or too influenced by those negative factors."

PAL has been around since the 1980s in Escondido. Owens took over in 2008. His first year, he says the program had 37 kids. Now it helps more than 500 kids a year.

The number of kids in PAL currently outnumbers the gang population of the city.

"Out gang activity has decreased over the last five years," says Cramer. The Department has a dedicated gang unit to focus on enforcement. But Cramer says prevention is just as important.

That's where Escondido Education COMPACT comes in. They run a handful of supplemental programs that help at risk kids and families avoid crime and gangs.

COMPACT's "Prevention and Intervention" program offers services like tattoo removal, a Family Intervention Team, Girls Rock, mentorships, athletic programs, and even a youth court to promote restorative justice.

The program is partially funded by a Federal gang prevention grant called the "Innovations in Community Based Crime Reduction" grant. It provided nearly $1 million to the city to help fund COMPACT and add more officers to the Escondido PD's gang unit.

The city applied for the grant shortly after the murder of Catherine Kennedy, an Escondido resident who was killed in the crossfire of a gang turf war in 2017.

City leaders say, while they had several gang prevention efforts already underway, that death galvanized the community.

"I can't help but feel like it redoubled our efforts," says Mayor Paul McNamara.

Mayor McNamara likes to focus on ways to prevent gang membership, instead of punish gang members.

"I always say we're a city of unsung heroes, because there's all these sorts of organizations trying to get the whole spectrum of our youth involved in something," says Mayor McNamara. "I think that is one of the biggest things that really helps."

The city also has an award-winning graffiti removal program. They offer do-it-yourself clean up kits at city hall. They also have a team that responds to graffiti requests within a few hours.

Like Owens says, every part of the city's gang prevention program shows the community cares about its kids.

"When you create a bond with those kids, that makes all the difference in the world," Owens says. "We know we save lives, there's no doubt about it."