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California City Strives to Avoid Police-Community Conflict

“Justice. When do we want it? Now.”

This chant grew out of the violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri that followed the shooting death of an unarmed black man by a white police officer during a street confrontation last August. Now, it is echoing around the country after police shootings in other communities have sparked protests.

The city of Stockton, California is something of a poster child for the kind of community where trouble between police and minority communities could happen. A mid-sized city in north central California, Stockton is a mix of scenic communities and troubled neighborhoods, plagued by gang violence. The city has a troubled economy. Stockton declared bankruptcy in 2012 - at the time the largest American city to go bankrupt. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Stockton is one of 16 American cities where unemployment remains in the double digits at 10.6 percent.

Stockton also has a high crime rate. The same year the city went bankrupt, it was rated the 10th most dangerous city in America. The crime rate has dropped considerably since then, but still is a worry to local law enforcement

Authorities in Stockton have heard the chants echoing across the country and they are working to forestall the kind of violent protests that racked Ferguson. In Stockton now, every police officer undergoes specialized training. It starts with recruits on their first day on the job. They hear about the importance of respect between police and citizens, and that effective communication can make their difficult job easier and safer.

Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones says minority residents - and Stockton has a large minority population - are often suspicious of officers.

“Across the board, the research shows, across our nation, that those communities that are typically most grappled by violent crime, those communities that need police the most, typically have the highest level of mistrust within their police force,” he said.

The training program, developed in Chicago, has demonstrated how mutual respect can ease tensions on the street.

Whole Community Approach

In another part of Stockton, community groups assess a federal program called My Brother’s Keeper on its first anniversary. This national White House initiative aims to help minority residents participate more fully in their city’s life, through such goals as getting all children to read at grade level by third grade, making sure young people graduate from high school, providing jobs for high school graduates and keeping young people safe from crime.

Community groups, including Fathers and Families of San Joaquin, work to keep families safe and keep young men out of trouble. The group’s director, Sammy Nunez, says the outreach needs to be both national and local.

“The approach that each community’s going to take might differ, but certainly I think that the diagnosis is universal. The treatment will be specific," said Nunez.

Stockton targets gang members to separate them from guns and violence. Ken Praegitzer manages a city program called Operation Peacekeeper that was started in 1998 and is credited with reducing Stockton's crime rate. The mission of Operation Peacekeeper is to use outreach workers in collaboration with governmental, community-based and faith-based organizations to reduce gang-related violence.

“We've had successes, but we've also had some setbacks," Praegitzer said. "It just depends on the individuals, the level of commitment that they want change."

Problems in cities like Stockton run deep, says lawyer and activist Frankie Guzman. He was jailed as a youngster for armed robbery, but later finished college and law school. He is pleased about Washington's interest.

“I have hope that the voice, the leadership from the [Obama] administration top-down will have an impact, particularly with government agents who oftentimes don't hold themselves accountable to the most vulnerable," said Guzman.

DOJ Pilot Program

In March, the Department of Justice included Stockton with five other communities in a new program to improve relationships between law enforcement officers and their communities. The new program will invest in training, evidence-based strategies, police development and research to combat distrust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

The program was announced in Washington eight days after two police officers were shot in Ferguson, Missouri during a protest that was sparked by a Department of Justice report that accused the Ferguson police department of a pattern of "unlawful conduct."