Zócalo Public Square is a magazine of ideas from Arizona State University Knowledge Enterprise.
We hear a lot these days about rifts between police and the communities they serve, especially in communities of color. I come from both worlds: I am a deputy police chief in my hometown of Salinas.
You read a lot about crime in East Salinas, but I’m proud to have grown up there. The city was different and smaller (about 80,000 vs. 155,000 today) when I was a kid. My family was typical; on both sides, I had grandparents from Mexico who came here to work in fields and packing sheds.
My schools—Fremont Elementary and El Sausal Middle—had an assigned police officer (an early version of today’s school resource officers). I made friends with those officers. Those relationships—and the fact I had strict parents whose rules kept me away from drugs and gangs—led me to consider law enforcement as a career.
After high school, I enrolled at Hartnell Junior College. The college had a campus safety program run by the Salinas Police Department; I enrolled in classes and patrolled the college, providing security services and parking enforcement. Before I graduated, I became a reserve deputy with the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department.
After Hartnell, I was accepted to Fresno State but put my education on hold to pursue my career. I applied for jobs with the sheriff’s department and the Salinas police. The sheriff’s department offered me a job first, so I took it. After the academy and training, I worked in the King City substation, but I wanted to come home and work out of the Salinas station, which serves unincorporated areas like Castroville and Prunedale.
After time on patrol, I took a job as an investigator in the sheriff’s coroner division. I felt the pull of Salinas. I applied with the police department and was hired. I’ve done a number of different jobs—training officer, SWAT, detective, the gang unit—and found time to complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Over the next 20 plus years, I was promoted to sergeant, lieutenant, commander, and then, in 2013, I became one of two deputy police chiefs.
I work at staying grounded in the community. I’ve been on the board of directors of three local nonprofits—our own Police Activities League, Second Chance Youth & Family Services, and Sun Street Centers, a drug and alcohol abuse program.
The Salinas crime picture is complicated. Start with socioeconomic disadvantages, absentee parents, educational challenges, then add in the glamorization of gang lifestyles in music and movies, and the intrinsic desire of kids to belong to something. The gangs are better armed than they used to be, and the prison gang and drug cartel influences have made the problem even more challenging.
While the problem is real, the perception of violent crime in East Salinas has been overstated. Gangsters are a small number of people here. Most people are honest and hardworking and want a safe place to live, work, and raise a family.
In the police department, we are trying to use technology to work smarter and target the most violent individuals. The days of just driving around and trying to arrest gangsters are over. We rely on intelligence and statistical analysis to identify troublemakers. We combine that with place-based policing, as part of our overall violence reduction strategy.
This worked particularly well in the neighborhood of Hebbron, where two officers took care of quality-of-life issues and really got to know the people there.
Unfortunately, we had to temporarily shut down our place-based policing program—and all our other special units. We are more than 30 officers below our budgeted force. The attrition and retirement rates have been outpacing our hiring efforts.
Police recruitment and staffing are problems everywhere—and the recent media coverage of alleged police misconduct is not helping matters—but Salinas has special challenges. We’re just an hour’s drive from Silicon Valley, where police recruits can make three times the salary and not have to put their lives on the line.
I see hope in the improvements people are making in neighborhoods, the work that planners are doing to attract small businesses, the investment by Taylor Farms in its new headquarters downtown. If we can make Salinas peaceful and safer, the future could be very bright.
Right now, we’re focused on the fundamentals—and on building our ranks. We have 13 people in the academy and need more. Our goal is to better reflect the community we serve. We even have a grant for eight school-based police officers, and I’d love to have the people to staff it. I know firsthand the impact even one officer in one school can make on a kid in Salinas.
Dan Perez is a 30-year veteran of local law enforcement. He is the married father of three who enjoys photography and travel in his spare time. This essay is part of Salinas: California’s Richest Poor City, a special project of Zócalo Public Square and The California Wellness Foundation