Look ahead to 2009: Expansion seen for Operation Phoenix

05:04 PM PST on Tuesday, December 30, 2008
The Press-Enterprise

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SAN BERNARDINO - San Bernardino will seek to add new programs and improve facilities in the city's anti-crime Operation Phoenix in the coming year despite budget worries, officials say.

Kent Paxton, the city's director of community safety and violence prevention, said plans for 2009 include:

Adding restrooms and paving a parking lot at Phoenix's eastern headquarters, a former San Gorgonio High School building at the edge of Speicher Park.

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Establishing a community garden at the eastern site and reviving Phoenix's first such garden on the community's West Side.

Examining possible links between single-container alcohol sales and crime.

Contracting with Catholic Charities for job training and other services to young parolees and probationers considered to be at high risk of re-offending.

Crime-fighting Funding

Operation Phoenix, launched in 2006, is Mayor Pat Morris' multidepartmental crime deterrent project. It combines suppression, intervention and prevention tactics aimed at combating crime in the San Bernardino County city with the highest homicide rate.

Phoenix officials are proceeding with such programs despite the economic downturn by cobbling together residual funding from the last fiscal year, seeking new grant money and turning to other government agencies for help, Paxton said.

Grant applications include a bid for $300,000 in federal dollars for gang intervention and a request for a like amount on the alcohol-sales program.

Under a half-million dollar county grant first approved in November 2007, officials have increased law enforcement around the eastern headquarters, Paxton said. The grant also included $97,000 for recreation programs. A second $97,000 county allotment will help pay for restrooms at the Speicher Park headquarters, Paxton said. Construction is set to start next month.

Also next month, the Urban Youth Conservation Corps, a non-profit organization that works with youths considered at risk of joining a gang, will start building a community garden modeled on a pilot program at Phoenix's West Side center, Paxton said.

Thomas Contreras, who lives near the eastern headquarters, welcomed the proposals. He said he often sees gang members loitering near the park,

"These guys need direction," Contreras said. "They need to know they can do something with their lives."

Phoenix Concerns

Activists say Phoenix, with its blend of community-based policing, youth recreation, tutoring and job training, provides such direction. But they worry whether San Bernardino officials will stick with the program.

The West Side community garden, for example, lapsed this year following the July arrest of a Phoenix recreation supervisor on child molestation charges.

Michael Steven Miller was arrested on suspicion of child molestation and charged with 24 felonies. Miller, who pleaded not guilty, is accused of molesting two young girls in the months before his arrest and another girl more than a decade ago. He could face life in prison if convicted on all counts.

In the weeks after Miller's arrest, critics led by City Councilwomen Wendy McCammack and Esther Estrada questioned supervision and background checks in the program and called for greater oversight.

The Rev. Bronica Martindale, a West Side community activist who founded the garden, said officials failed to approve operating agreements for months during the political turmoil that followed the arrest.

"You have other programs that have something like this happen, and it's unfortunate, but people realize that that one case doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the program as a whole," Martindale said.

"Here in San Bernardino, it's start, stop, start, stop. And when that happens, people stop showing up for the programs."

Estrada said she's still concerned about security. As Phoenix expands, she'll continue to demand more oversight, Estrada said.

Reach Chris Richard at 951-368-9529 or crichard@PE.com

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