Correction to This Article
The article about the California city of Salinas using counter-insurgency lessons from Iraq to combat gangs incorrectly said that all 25 homicides in the city in 2008 were related to gangs. Two were not.

Calif. city tries counterinsurgency to stem gang problem

Police Officer Tim Simpson conducts a traffic stop in Salinas, Calif., beset by gang-related killings.
Police Officer Tim Simpson conducts a traffic stop in Salinas, Calif., beset by gang-related killings. (Photos By Randi Lynn Beach For The Washington Post)
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By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 15, 2009

SALINAS, CALIF. -- Famed to readers as the birthplace of John Steinbeck and in supermarket produce circles as the "Salad Bowl of the World," the city of Salinas carries darker renown in the netherworld of California's prisons. Instant respect is accorded any inmate tattooed with the words "Salad Bowl" or "Salis" -- gang shorthand for a city now defined most of all by ferocious eruptions of violence.

In the space of 11 days this year, seven people were murdered in Salinas. Each killing, like the record 25 homicides the previous year, spilled from the gang warfare that this summer pushed the homicide rate in the city of 140,000 to three times that of Los Angeles. Residents retreated indoors at night, and Mayor Dennis Donohue affirmed his decision to seek help from an unlikely source: the U.S. military.

Since February, combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been advising Salinas police on counterinsurgency strategy, bringing lessons from the battlefield to the meanest streets in an American city.

"This is our surge," said Donohue, who solicited the assistance from the elite Naval Postgraduate School, 20 miles and a world away in Monterey. "When the public heard about this, they thought we were going to send the Navy SEALs into Salinas."

In fact, the cavalry arrived in civvies, carrying laptops rather than M-16s and software instead of mortars. In this case, the most valuable military asset turned out to be an idea: Change the dynamic in the community and victory can follow.

"It's a little laboratory," said retired Col. Hy Rothstein, the former Army career officer in Special Forces who heads the team of 15 faculty members and students, mostly naval officers taking time between deployments to pick up a master's degree. Their effort in Salinas counts as extracurricular and is necessarily voluntary, given the constitutional bar on the military operating within U.S. borders.

"Obviously, there are restrictions," said Salinas Deputy Police Chief Kelly McMillin. "Not only the constitutional part of it, but just the idea we are going to have choppers fast-roping onto Alisal Street."

'Occupying force'

The reality turns out to be less dramatic: The thrust of the plan relies on winning the trust of people. In Salinas, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the uniformed forces patrolling "are still viewed as an occupying force," said Police Chief Louis Fetherolf.

Gangs and police compete in the aftermath of gang shootings -- witnesses in a position to see everything share nothing with police. Their silence is so absolute that after a killing in August, a department spokesman told the local paper that police were "absolutely begging" for witnesses.

The distrust rises partly from differences of culture and language: Many Hispanics in the city have roots in nations where police are often viewed as predators.

"Lot of people are afraid of the cops," said Jose Angel Soto, whose 16-year-old son was fatally shot on the street in May 2008.

But Fetherolf, who took office this year, also blamed a tradition of police officers who "love the chase. They get into this business to kick ass and take names, by and large. We're at odds with ourselves because of the people we hire."


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