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Crime SceneThe word from the Salinas Police Department is that the record number of homicides in the city last year was not  linked to any particular trend or even for the most part linked to gangs. The total topped 40 by the end of the year, easily bettering the previous record of 29 homicides, but police officials said they were at a loss to explain much of it.

Former Monterey Herald reporter Julia Reynolds, a true expert on Central Coast gangs, wrote in late December that the authorities felt this was not a sign of gangs out of control.

“… (I)n setting a new record, 2015 has been a year of outliers,” Reynolds wrote. “While gang rivalries and vendettas are likely responsible for more than half of this year’s homicides, a significant percentage of the violence appears to be the kind cities everywhere else deal with most of the time — the kinds of killings common everywhere but Salinas.

“These slayings stem from personal disputes, escalating arguments at parties or in the streets, quarrels that end with gunshots and sirens. They are family feuds and drug-dealing beefs that are settled by drawing a gun or pulling a knife. In rarer cases, they’re settled with a killer’s bare hands.”

I can’t prove it, but I think officials may have painted her a misleading picture. Since I can’t prove it, what I’m really saying is that I have a hunch, and that is that the rash of murders that continues into this year absolutely could be the result of gang violence of the worst kind. Based principally on the brief description of the crime that accompanies each news release about the latest murder, I suspect that Salinas gang members, Nortenos mostly, could be systematically executing young men that they suspect to be members of the rival Surenos – or that they are executing young men who happen to look like relatively recent immigrants who fit the profile of Sureno recruits. By my count, that would explain more than a dozen killings last year and several of the shootings, fatal and not, this year.

I’ve spoken to a couple of former gang members, not the most reliable of sources, and they agree with my thinking. One of them said he moved from Salinas to Greenfield because of the violence. But I also have talked to Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin about this a couple of times and he disputes my theory, though without the level of certitude that persuades me I’m wrong. He acknowledges that quite a few victims fit the profile that my theory encompasses but he says his detectives don’t believe a single explanation fits a large percentage of these cases.

The most recent homicide occurred Saturday night in the 1000 block of Atlantic Street. That’s in East Salinas, about a half block from Acosta Plaza, a housing project that has seen more than its share of gang violence. A 23-year-old man had been shot several times “by unknown persons” while walking on the sidewalk. Motive unknown, no known witnesses.

The circumstances were somewhat similar in at least four non-fatal shootings in the last 10 days. Young man shot by a young Latino man dressed all in black. Young couple shot by unknown man. Young man shot after being confronted by another young man who asked his gang affiliation.

Again and again last year the shooters in fatal and non-fatal attacks alike were described as young men dressed black, often wearing hoods. Sometimes one young man. Often two.

As Reynolds wrote, those could be the result of arguments at parties, of domestic disputes or neighborhood beefs, but in such cases, the police usually have a relatively easy time figuring out who pulled the trigger — and the shooter isn’t all that likely to be outfitted in black, with a hood.

Gang-related cases are much harder, for several reasons. Most obviously, there’s the fear factor. Victims and witnesses alike aren’t eager to put themselves in continuing conflict with gang bangers. Less obviously, victims of gang violence may suspect or believe it had to do with gangs but they’re not likely to be able to name names. Members of rival gangs don’t hang out together. And the type of victims being targeted, recent arrivals in Salinas, are even less likely to know the identities of their attackers.

Another factor adds to the challenge for detectives. Executions often are attempted from some distance, often from a passing car. That makes identifications even more difficult.

Maybe I’m wrong. There’s an excellent chance that I am. But if I’m right, I think it is time, past time, for the authorities to put out some meaningful alerts, to warn people who fit the profile that they may want to keep a very low profile for until things quiet down.

It is just as likely that I am being naïve, that the message has already been sent and received through informal channels and that there really isn’t anything more that can be done about this. That could be.

But here’s my hope. My hopes, actually. I hope I’m wrong, but if I’m right and there is some reason the authorities don’t want to cop to it, I hope they think it over and do the right thing

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People in Salinas get excited about the littlest things. Strike that. Some people in Salinas get excited about the littlest things.

This week’s buzz is about a Jose, Castaneda, who tried to visit another Jose, Velasco, in jail. The motives of Jose Castaneda, the rogue Salinas City Councilman, remain unclear because his plan was nipped in the bud by an alert jailer and an equally alert patrol officer who fortunately understand the full range of negative outcomes that are possible when unauthorized communication between Joses is allowed to floursh.

The intended recipient of the visit, Velasco, is in jail because he attacked his mother in the middle of a busy North Main Street a little over a week ago. Velasco has been in the news because Salinas police officers attempting to restrain him tased him twice and finally resorted to a series of nightstick blows in order to subdue him after he grabbed a taser away from one officer and wrestled vigorously with others.

A passing motorist managed to get video of the arrest and it has become must see TV. Much of what is going on unfortunately is obscured by the officers themselves but it is clear that Velasco was struck at least 20 times. Some who have viewed the video say it appears that one officer, the one supplying the final several blows, may have gone slightly overboard. While the other officers involved remain on full duty, he has been assigned to desk duty pending the outcome of investigations.

Police Chief Kelly McMillin, while stressing he will reserve judgment until the investigations are completed, also told the Partisan early last week that anyone who believes excessive force was used is “simply wrong.”

Anyway, it seems that Castaneda attempted to visit with Velasco in jail on Thursday, a day when inmates are only supposed to be visited by their lawyers or relatives.

His plot was foiled, a victim of his notoriety. A clerk at the jail recognized him and who wouldn’t? He is the bad boy of Salinas politics, the subject of hours of TV footage of him walking away from reporters, the subject of countless columns by Jeff Mitchell, a Salinas Californian reporter with an apparent fondness for chronicling the misadventures of people who make his job easy by not putting up a defense.

If you were the victim of a crime in Salinas and wanted the Police Department to write up a report about it, you’d likely be told that the line starts over there but not until a week from tomorrow. Yet Castaneda’s trip to the jail was the subject of one of the fastest appearing reports of all time and it was in the columnist’s hands even before the officer’s supervisor could get a chance to sign it. Mitchell would like people to believe that the report came his way because of his sleuthing skills. Not so.

The report presents an interesting account that suggests that officer Ernesto Sanchez might want to consider ghostwriting Mitchell’s column from time to time.He reports that he had gone to the jail on other business but happened to encounter Councilman Castaneda.

“Once I arrived at the lobby of the visitor’s building, I observed a man who I recognized as a councilmember for the city of Salinas, Jose Castaneda …. I saw that he looked at me as I walked into the lobby and he greeted me by looking directly at me and forming a large smile on his face. Since I knew who he was, … I returned the same greeting and nodded my head to him.

“Almost immediately after I returned the greeting to him, I saw that his face changed into what I recognized to be a ‘can you help me?’ look; his eyebrows turned slightly upwards in the middle and he continued to hold a smile much smaller than the original smile … . He did not say anything else to me and I did not say anything else to him either.”

From there, the plot thickens quickly but the prose dries up, so paraphrasing will suffice.

Sanchez reports that he went about his business but a clerk pointed out Castaneda and informed him that Castaneda had tried but failed to get inside by claiming to be a relative of Velasco. Actual relatives of Velasco were there for a visit. Might Castaneda have said he was “with the family”?

Sanchez left the clerk’s name out of the report, apparently for her protection. From whom he does not indicate.

Disaster was averted but one might conclude otherwise listening to other council members. They were all over the TV news this week tsk-tsking about irresponsibility and giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Apparently since Velasco’s family has obtained counsel and there might be a lawsuit, a councilman talking to Velasco would amount to treason.

The Californian columnist said the council is considering censure and it’s about time. Later, Mitchell gleefully reported that the Monterey County grand jury (lower case, JM, and you can look it up) just issued a report highly critical of Castaneda’s behavior and urging the City Council to find a way to force him to either pay a $5,000 fine or force him off the council.

It is true, very true, that Castaneda has been a pain in the council’s collective butt. He doesn’t play by the rules. He doesn’t file required forms, he has scuffles with people, he accomplishes just about nothing of import and he pouts a lot. His city stipend has been garnished because he can’t pay his bills. Castaneda is a troublemaker who brings little to his position except talk. He talks a pretty good game about equality and civil rights, etc., but undercuts himself through inaction. Some will recall that he was simultaneously and illegally serving on both the council and a school board at one time. People who voted for Castaneda made a mistake.

But the rest of the council, and Jimmy Olsen over there at the Californian, are making a mistake by making a big deal out of Castaneda’s attempt to talk to Velasco. Big whoops. But he lied! Maybe, but show me a politician who hasn’t told a fib this week.

If there was any doubt about Castaneda’s record as a councilman, news of the grand jury report would be a big deal, But confirmation of the obvious hardly amounts to groundbreaking stuff. Mitchell writes with disdain about Castaneda’s plan to appear Friday at a rally in support of Velasco, and to appear with the Velasco family’s lawyer. Mitchell is right when he says Castaneda has the right to do so. He’s wrong, though, when he goes on to say that it means Castaneda will be disqualified from participating in the city’s discussions over whatever lawsuit is filed on Velasco’s behalf. Jimmy Olsen seems to be getting his legal advice from someone other than a lawyer.

What is the worst that could have happened if Castaneda had talked to one of his constituents? The councilman isn’t likely to know anything about the Velasco arrest that everyone doesn’t already know. Some of Velasco’s thinking might slip out of his cell? Castaneda may say something that contradicts the official city line as though countless politicians in countless cities haven’t strayed from majority think without catastrophic result.

My chief concern here is simply this. I question the wisdom of having a police report prepared on such a minor event and I question the judgment of those who thought it should be leaked to a columnist who is obsessed with Castaneda. The police report filed by Sanchez says right at the top that no crime had been committed. Where does a report like this get stored? The political intelligence file? Does the Police Department think it makes itself look better by linking Velasco to Castaneda.

So now the council is inching closer to stepping up and issuing a censure. My dictionary describes that as a meaningless act that diverts attention from more important things.

There’s nothing the City Council can do to change Castaneda’s behavior. Most of the council members have already had plenty of TV time and the opportunity to demonstrate just how statesmanlike they are in contrast to their colleague. They would be doing the city, and Castaneda’s constituents, much more good by finding and encouraging a good candidate or two to run against him, but that’s a lot harder than going on camera and shaking one’s head.

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UnknownIt is only natural, and somewhat appropriate, for a police chief to stand up for his or her officers when controversy develops or, as is becoming more and more common, when a video surfaces putting the officers in a bad light.

Therefore, it is best to allow Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin some leeway as he responds to the battering of an assault suspect last week. We shouldn’t make a terribly big deal out of the way he on the one hand urges the public not to rush to judgment and then, then on the other hand, aggressively vilifies the suspect and exonerates officers he might have to discipline some day.

Referring to his department’s arrest Friday of assault suspect Jose Velasco, McMillin told the Herald on Monday, “I would say to those who think this is unnecessary (force) to consider all the facts and understand exactly what happened. This video shows a small version of the events.”

In other words, forget what you think you saw on the cell phone video – Velasco receiving 20 blows from officers using nightsticks– and wait for the results of formal investigation by a Police Department that has already made up its mind.

In a lengthy and sometimes animated phone conversation with the Partisan, McMillin detailed Velasco’s injuries and twice said that he had suffered a minor head wound from an accidental billyclub blow. He said the officer had been swinging for another part of Velasco’s body but Velasco quickly changed position, causing the baton to strike his head.

I asked McMillin how he had determined the blow to the head was accidental.

“Because that’s what the officers said,” he said.

That’s what McMillin should have said in the first place. Strike that. It’s what someone else should have said in the first place. That the officer said it was an accident. But McMillin simply called it an accident. No ifs, ands or maybes. No we’re going to find out.

In a long interview with KSBW, McMillin unfortunately sounded more like a defense lawyer for the officers involved, not their commanding officer.

There is little in the video to suggest the officers acted criminally or in violation of department regulations. Velasco clearly was resisting mightily and the rules of engagement say police officers can do just about anything within reason to a suspect who is resisting mightily. I have no reason to disbelieve the officer who says he accidentally hit Velasco on the head.

But it is wrong for the department to tell the public to withhold judgment – to wait for an investigation that likely will take well over a year – while simultaneously doing everything possible to weight public reaction against the suspect and to portray the officers as essentially above suspicion.

Though the department won’t comment on Velasco’s apparently history of mental illness, they said from the start that he was confronted because he had attacked his mother, that he has had multiple arrests for various felonies, that he has violated parole and that he had exhibited “super human” strength because he apparently was high on methamphetamine.

Most of the literature on that final topic, methamphetamine’s effects, discards the notion that methamphetamine produces exceptional strength. Instead, researchers agree that it can greatly reduce a person’s ability to feel pain. A person in that state clearly is more dangerous and harder to control than a sober person but there is little to indicate that such a person can lift more weight or manhandle more officers.

Some area residents who watched accounts of the arrest on TV say they got the impression that the officers had interrupted the assault on Velasco’s mother. The Police Department later said, though, that they had received several 911 calls reporting the attack on the woman, one of the calls coming from Velasco’s mother. Such details have been largely ignored while the department puts its efforts into painting itself in a good light.

I’m not suggesting that McMillin’s analysis is wrong. Let me repeat that. I am not saying McMillin’s version of events is wrong. He knows far more about the incident than almost anyone. Velasco allegedly ripped one officer’s taser out of its holster – or at least that’s what the officers involved in the altercation said. He clearly was a danger to himself, the officers, the public and his mother.

But if McMillin wants us to keep our opinions to ourselves, to simply sit back and wait while the District Attorney’s Office moseys through an investigation that will receive an extremely low priority among prosecutors, he should not be so obviously taking the word of the officers as gospel. Subtly and not so subtly, McMillin has made it clear that anyone who questions his version of events is being irresponsible or “immature.”

If it turns out that the officers are shading the truth, McMillin could find himself in the position of having to discipline while also admitting that he was wrong, that he had done exactly the kind of pre-judging that he asks the public to avoid.

It would be a much wiser course for someone in McMillin’s position let someone else in the department do the talking in a case such as this so he is not putting himself in a position of potentially having to make a credibility-shattering retraction at some point, after all the sitting back and waiting is over.

Because of simple human nature, the internal and DA’s investigations into Friday’s arrest will automatically be biased against Velasco and for the officers. That’s just the way it goes and it would be naïve or even silly to expect anything else. But to make those inquiries as professional as possible, the chief should not be making any pronouncements about guilt, innocence or motivations. He is supposed to be looking out for the public’s best interests, not just the best interests of his officers.

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Crime SceneIn today’s Washington Post, Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin talks about his department’s challenges and other issues in the context of the situation in Missouri. It left me uneasy, but I’m not sure why. I’d love to see what others think. You can leave a comment below after you’ve read it.

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