Illustration by Joe Lai
Illustration by Joe Lai

Fueled by the many recent occurrences of devastating gang crimes in Santa Cruz County, the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) has created a new branch to tackle the heightened violence.


The launch of the new unit follows the creation of similar units devoted to gang activity in Watsonville and Salinas. The recent gang-related shootings in Oakland that made international headlines serve as just one illustration of the ongoing cycle of gang crime in the Bay Area. 

“We’ve been able to hire a number of new officers, which in turn has allowed us to dedicate resources specifically to gang activity,” said police spokesman Zach Friend.

The new task force will consist of three full-time gang experts, but the department expects it to grow within the next few weeks. The new staff will provide internal training, gang crime intelligence activities, and insightful strategies for dealing with gang activity.

Recent crimes have involved inhabitants of many regions of Santa Cruz County, including the city of Santa Cruz itself. Since January, all but one of the county’s gang-related crimes have involved people from the city of Santa Cruz. 

Friend explained that gang activity is on the rise this year in Santa Cruz, and is increasing in severity.

“Overall, most crime has been declining,” Friend said. “However, the prevalence of high-profile gang crime seems to be rising.”

Despite the apparent increase in Santa Cruz, City Councilmember Tony Madrigal stressed that the fight against gang crime must not be confined to within the county.

“We need to make sure any countywide efforts go beyond [county lines] and collaborate with efforts to address gangs in other counties,” Madrigal said.

This is not the first step the police agency has taken to decrease the occurrence of gang crime within Santa Cruz borders. Previously, the SCPD worked closely with police networks throughout the county. However, said Santa Cruz Police Chief Howard Skerry, the Joint Area Gang Operations program lacked full-time staffing capability. 

“This is a necessary and bold step toward breaking this cycle of violence countywide,” Skerry said in a recent press release.

With the newly allocated funds, the SCPD believes it will be able to address the problem more effectively. The expansion will allow the officers on the force to narrow their focus to the specific realm of gang activity in order to pay close attention and fight it more diligently.

Watsonville Police Chief Terry Medina stressed the importance of these efforts to maintain a safe society.

“By dedicating officers to this effort, the Santa Cruz Police Department is enhancing [its] ability … to provide a countywide and organized presence of law enforcement on our number one problem: gang crime,” Medina said in a recent press release.

In addition to law enforcement, nonprofit organizations are also stepping up to combat the problem of gang activity.

Nane Alejándrez, director of the grassroots organization Barrios Unidos, said that a gang-free city is possible, but it will require additional efforts beyond law enforcement.

“We need a collaboration, with more community involvement addressing the issue, not just one group,” Alejándrez said. 

He stressed the importance of investing in prevention of gang warfare.

“By educating and giving support to young people and those who need it, we can eradicate violence,” Alejándrez said.