Neighbors were standing outside, huddled in groups. Flashing red and blue lights illuminated the concern on their faces. My first thought was that a neighbor had had a medical emergency, but then I saw crime scene tape blocking the road. There were nearly a dozen police cruisers and as many officers along with floodlights, and the large box truck that Salinas PD uses for crime scene investigations.
I thought to myself that it must be a domestic incident. We live on a quiet street, but a domestic incident, that can happen anywhere. An officer motioned for us to turn around, I quickly obliged. By driving around the block I was able to get us home. From our front yard I could see that the crime scene appeared to be the length of six homes on both sides of the street.
We went inside and I logged into Facebook to check “Neighborhood Watch help in Salinas” a local group that more often than not breaks news of crimes faster than any news organization. Another group member who had been manning the police scanner had posted that there had been a shooting, an attempted murder, on our street. Finding little additional information that night we slept nervously, the illusion of safety and security broken. Our quiet, peaceful street was no longer the same. With every sound my eyes popped open, my heart raced. I double-checked that all the doors and windows were locked tight.
By morning Salinas PD had issued a press release. The victim, a 39-year-old man, was among a group of neighbors barbecuing in the driveway. Two shooters arrived, exited their vehicle that was driven by a third accomplice, and approached the group. When they reached the driveway, without saying a word, they began shooting. Then they ran back to the car and sped off down the street, a route that took them directly past our home. The victim was struck multiple times. No one else was hit. The victim was listed in serious condition at the hospital. t
The last line of the press release stated, “The case is being investigated as possibly gang related due to previous gang contacts by the victim.”
Now I was angry. A gang member? On our street? He apparently had brought the shooting on himself and put us all in danger by his very presence. I’m observant. How could I not have known?
Later that morning I spoke with some of my neighbors and learned that the victim lived a few doors down from where the shooting occurred. I shared with them that the police identified the victim as a gang member. We were all nervous and concerned and unsure of what we should do. We found no comfort in our shared fear and shuffled back to our homes, mumbling about the way it used to be.
Since the shooting on our street earlier this summer I’ve become more involved with the Facebook group “Neighborhood Watch Help in Salinas.” We are a community of over 4,000 local members. We share information about crimes in our neighborhoods, offer tips and suggestions for keeping our families safe, and provide a forum for community-driven crime prevention strategies. We also address non-crime neighborhood issues that affect our quality of life. Posts in the group are made by members. Through them we have 4,000-plus sets of eyes and ears on the streets. We have a set of rules designed to keep the group civil. Several administrators including myself monitor things to assure compliance, removing posts and comments and members when necessary.
As the group has grown and participation has increased, we face a number of ethical questions. Should we allow photos of auto accidents and crime scenes? Should we allow photos and posts about suspicious persons who are not committing a crime? Should we allow names of suspects or victims to be posted before that information has been made public? How much information should we allow posted about police activities during active incidents? We deal with each of these ethical questions as they arise often with input from members.
Several members thinking outside the box have recently suggested that the state establish a mandatory, publicly accessible gang member registry and neighbor notification similar to Megan’s Law, the registry and notification requirements for sex offenders. The argument being that we have a right to know of any potential dangers in our neighborhoods so that we can take appropriate precautions. If a child molester moves in next door, it poses a risk to our children and we have a legal and ethical right to know about it. We require publicly posted notices and a database of the locations of toxic chemicals and radioactive materials. If a gang member engaged in illegal activities moves in next door they are putting the neighborhood in danger from gang violence. Why do we not have a right to know about that so we can take appropriate precautions to protect our families?
Currently as part of Proposition 21 some gang members are required to register with law enforcement when ordered by the court. However, the registrations are not made public. The state does maintain a database of gang members and information about their activities. It is an important tool for law enforcement, and the information is kept under lock and key with access restricted to only certain law enforcement officers.
Chances of the state establishing a publicly accessible gang member registry and neighbor notification system are highly unlikely. The question then becomes this. Should individuals share information via social media or any other format identifying gang members and their residences? And what if we know of a gang member in our neighborhood and share that information publicly and the gang member or someone else is injured or killed. Who is responsible? If we know of a gang member in our neighborhood and we do not share that information, and an innocent person is injured or killed, do we share responsibility for that as well?
There are more questions still. How do we decide who should be reported as a gang member? We don’t want false accusations. We don’t want a witch hunt. I’m assuming that the only gang members identified would be those verified by law enforcement, such as the victim in the shooting on my own street who was identified in the press release as a gang member. Another example would be when gang members are arrested and later released to return home. Often the press release from the police department identifies them as gang members. But even when we only share information that is already publicly available about confirmed gang members we still have the ethical question of responsibility for whatever results from our choosing to act or not to act.
I’m trying to recall if Socrates addressed any similar dilemma. I’d love to hear from our resident philosophers and attorneys on these ethical questions and I invite you all to visit our group on Facebook “Neighborhood Watch Help in Salinas.”
Devin Podeszwa lives in Salinas.