Getting a GRIP: Fullerton chief lauded for role in bringing gang-prevention program to city

By Greg Hardesty

He was 14 — a kid seduced by the gang lifestyle who wanted to impress his “homies.”

One night in 2008, Jonathan hopped into the passenger seat of a car with three gang members.

The four roughed up a member of a rival gang with a crowbar, then sped off down the street.

A dead-end gave members of the rival gang enough time to retaliate.

Members of the Fullerton City Council, along with Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes, listened intently Tuesday night to what happened next:

A cinderblock hurled through the windshield crushed Jonathan’s skull. But instead of taking Jonathan to a nearby ER, his gang pals drove to another city and dumped him at a curb in front of a hospital.

Jonathan died on a gurney.

The woman telling the story Feb. 17 was making a point.

“People often tell me, ‘There’s no gang problem in Orange County,’” Deputy District Attorney Tamika Williams said.

“But we do have a gang problem here in Orange County.”

Deputy District Attorney Tamika Williams says Orange County has a gang problem. Photo: Steven Georges

Deputy District Attorney Tamika Williams says Orange County has a gang problem. Photo: Steven Georges

Williams was invited to make a presentation to city officials on the OC GRIP program, for Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership.

Fullerton is the most recent city to partner with GRIP, a law enforcement-led program that works with elementary schools, parents, faith-based organizations and corporate sponsors to keep at-risk kids out of gangs.

Starting with two north Orange County schools in 2007, GRIP since has spread to 50 elementary schools throughout the county, including three in Fullerton: Maple, Topaz and Woodcrest.

“He (Hughes) is a leader in the community and was instrumental in bringing the GRIP program to the city of Fullerton,” Williams told councilmembers during a 28-minute presentation that preceded the public comment portion of Tuesday night’s meeting.

“There are cities clamoring for this,” she said. “(Chief Hughes) worked tirelessly to bring GRIP to this city.”

Orange County has an estimated 715 street gangs and 15,000 gang members, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. These gang members account for 48 percent of violent crimes occurring in the county, according to the DA’s office.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has been “groundbreaking” as a “tough prosecutor” in targeting gangs, Williams said.

But prevention is the other side of the coin, she said.

That’s where GRIP comes in.

Keeping kids in school and encouraging them to make good choices is what the program is all about. GRIP offers such incentives as trips to Angels games or a tour of Ford’s regional headquarters for students to keep their attendance and grades up. Regular truancy sweeps are one component of the program.

GRIP targets fourth- through eighth-graders, or kids 8 to 14.

By high school it’s too late to keep youngsters out of gangs, Williams said.

GRIP works, the three Fullerton school principals involved with the program told the city council.

“This is a great opportunity, and it’s making a difference in children,” said Dr. Hilda Flores, principal of Woodcrest Elementary.

Maple Elementary Principal Susan Mercado said: “We need to have a successful partnership. It just can’t be the schools working in isolation.”

Topaz Elementary Principal Monica Barrera described GRIP as a “cool, refreshing drink of water in the harsh desert heat.”

In a second presentation, two members of the recently formed Police Chief’s Community Advisory Committee told the city council a year of discussions and training has been fruitful.

Rhonda Shader, a State Farm insurance agent and one of 10 volunteer members on the chief’s advisory board, which meets monthly, told the council the board currently is “perfecting policies” about body cameras Fullerton police officers now wear.

The Fullerton Police Department recently became the first law enforcement agency in Orange County to implement the use of body cameras.

Although only a year old, the chief’s citizen’s advisory board has discussed such issues as the militarization of police agencies, domestic acts of terrorism, changing crime statistics, gang injunctions, and police officers being killed in the line of duty.

“In all our discussions,” Shader said, “the question remains: How do we earn the trust of those who haven’t trusted the police in years?”

Members of the Police Chief’s Community Advisory Committee have been on ridealongs and have been involved on interview panels for entry-level police positions and promotions.

“This has made the process of hiring police officers much more transparent,” Shader said.

Added Shader: “He (Hughes) is really making an effort to make the Fullerton Police Department one of the best in the nation.”