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By Robert Salonga Contra Costa Times

CONCORD The formation of a task force to crack down on street gangs has been hailed as an important step toward reversing an uptick in gang-related crimes.
But those same voices police, city officials and residents would also say that handcuffs and jail cells alone won't solve a problem with deeper roots in Concord's neighborhoods.
What the city also needs, they say, is more recreation opportunities and mentoring for teens, and a take-charge attitude by residents to root out neighbors who subscribe to gang life.
"The biggest thing we're trying to do is build a community," said Concord Mayor Bill Shinn. "We're working with schools, identifying kids in jeopardy, and working with community groups."
To divert young people from gang life, the police department's school resource officers work with another police employee, Jim Hernandez, a youth violence prevention counselor. In the past 15 years, he has become a critical player for police in the fight to keep at-risk teens on a straight path.
Hernandez, 54, approaches the job with two pedigrees: as a former Richmond gang leader and as a reformed peacemaker and artist whose youth mentoring in the county earned him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2005.
He often throws himself in the midst of gang rivalries. After a drive-by shooting in March on Lacey Lane that killed a 16-year-old boy, he worked with family members and the teen's purported rivals to diffuse tension over a makeshift memorial at the shooting site, preventing further retaliation.
But the larger service he provides is going to classrooms, from elementary to high schools, to work with teens and help them reject the allure of gang life. The mentoring approach is effective, Hernandez said, because many of the teens he meets aren't full-fledged gang members, but aspiring ones.
And his past, he said, gives him a unique credibility to talk about the dangers of such a life.
Hernandez spends a lot of time steering students to the arts and other fields they don't always see as possibilities.
Fighting that sense of despair, Hernandez said, can be just as effective as police work in suppressing the growth of gangs. "It takes the blinders off," Hernandez said. "They find out there's more to life."
Hernandez tours schools dressed in Aztec garb and carrying drums to get students to take pride in heritage rather than a gang. He and his colleagues also take students on hikes like one to the top of Mount Diablo and other outdoor treks to expand their horizons.
City leaders and police point to him as Concord's rallying leader in anti-gang intervention, but Hernandez credits school resource officers, city programs and church organizations with conducting similar efforts.
The city's Parks and Recreation Department offers youth activities, with courses teaching skills ranging from baby-sitting and music to martial arts.
Hernandez cited the musically themed "Gym Jam" held at Glenbrook Middle School by the New Hope International Church as an example of steady work the city's religious community has done to keep teens engaged when they aren't in school.
Lilia Lomas, a 10-year Concord resident and parent, said in Spanish that she likes the idea of expanding activities that keep young people occupied and out of trouble. "Or if they like church, then church," Lomas said. "Or if they like to swim, then swimming, so that they don't have this free time."
Other residents, like 43-year-old Val Punongbayan, are willing to step up in other ways, like bolstering the neighborhood watch around his home on Hillsborough Drive. Several such coalitions exist, although they tend to get more participation in the midst of problems like a surge in crime.
"The community should be involved," Punongbayan said. "I can volunteer myself."
Added eyes and ears for police would be welcome, said Shinn, a retired Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office commander.
"It's all part of the bigger picture," Shinn said. "If you have a neighborhood where people feel threatened, then you don't have quality of life."
Volunteers are important because resources are generally tight in Concord, like many cities in the county.
"There could always be more (outreach). It doesn't cost that much to take 10 or 20 kids out to a regional park," Hernandez said, while taking a break from a recent excursion with students at Point Pinole Regional Shoreline.
"I could use a hand out here."

Wire Service
 
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