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San Bernardino, coping with struggle and tragedy, tries to find a way out of the violence

In his short life, 12-year-old Jason Spears witnessed immense violence in his San Bernardino neighborhood.

He learned to run upstairs for cover when he heard the gunshots that would ring out regularly. He watched his brothers and cousins come home bloody and bruised after being jumped by gang members. In January, he ran for shelter to a local store, bleeding and shaking after five young men attacked him on the street.

Then, this month, as Jason walked to a Circle K to buy a bag of chips with his 14-year-old cousin, he was shot and killed. His cousin was also hit but survived.

The sixth-grader's death marked the 15th homicide this year in a city already coping with prolonged economic struggles, persistent crime and the tragedy of last December's terrorist attack.

Homicides this year are almost twice what they were at this time last year. Community leaders are pushing for solutions to the violence, saying the city has dealt with enough.

"People in the city are ready for change, they want change," said Pastor Rick Alanis Jr. of Victory Outreach Church of San Bernardino.

Last week, as Jason's mother planned his funeral, shootings in the city of about 210,000 residents continued apace.

Thursday morning, a man was wounded by gunfire on the city's Westside. That evening, another man showed up at the hospital shot in the head and chest. Two days earlier, a man was wounded in a shooting outside an apartment complex, also on the Westside.

The violence has been spread throughout the city, though some is concentrated in certain neighborhoods, such as the one where Jason lived.

Police say most of the violence is tied to gangs and drugs, though at least some appears to be random. In January, the immigrant owner of a drive-through dairy was killed in a robbery, leaving behind his wife and 3-year-old daughter.

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Community organizers say the city's violence has been compounded by its deep economic struggles. In particular, programs offering young people alternatives to life on the streets have been decimated, they say.

"There's nothing for the kids to do," said Alanis, the pastor. "Eventually they begin to just hang out and they end up getting in trouble."

San Bernardino is not alone in coping with increased violence. A number of U.S. cities reported upticks in murder last year after years of historically low rates. Earlier this month, Los Angeles police reported a 27.5% increase in killings compared with last year.

Police in San Bernardino say they're doing their best to respond with a department hampered by severe budget cuts in the wake of the city's 2012 bankruptcy declaration.

Department staffing has been cut by about 30% in recent years. It now has about 230 officers.

At one time, the police had a number of community service offices throughout the city, where residents could make police reports, hold meetings and get information on starting neighborhood watch programs. But those offices also closed as the department cut back, police spokesman Lt. Rich Lawhead said.

Even before this latest rash of violence, the city had been coping with high violent crime rates.

In a report last year, police officials said San Bernardino had the "highest level of violent crime of any Southern California city with a population between 100,000 and 400,000."

Recognizing the need for improved policing, the city has adopted a five-year, $56-million police funding plan. But how and when the city can budget that money depends on the ongoing bankruptcy process.

Chief Jarrod Burguan said his department is struggling with both funding cuts and the effect of statewide initiatives that led to shorter sentences for criminal offenders and reduced a number of drug- and property-related felonies to misdemeanors.

"All of the things we have done, at the state level, and at the local level … have contributed to a perfect storm," Burguan said. "Can anybody truly be surprised that you're going to occasionally see spikes in crime?"

A coalition of religious groups is pushing the city to adopt Operation Ceasefire, a program that has addressed violence in cities around the country by bringing together law enforcement and community leaders to identify and reach out to people likely to cause violence.

In Richmond, Calif., where a version of the program was adopted in 2010, homicides dropped by more than half, officials there said.

Burguan said he supports the idea, though he would want a group outside his department to run it. The biggest impediment is money.

"We're not going to be able to create that funding source right now, just based on city finances," he said.

Some activists say police urgently need to develop better ties to neighborhoods to identify possible problems and defuse situations when they erupt.

Both sides stand to gain from those relationships, said Kesha McGee, a minister at Life Center Church.

"This is our community where [police] have to serve, and their lives are in danger," she said. "And it's where we have to live, and our lives are in danger."

Violence in San Bernardino led her to prohibit her own children, ages 4 to 19, from ever walking to the store or school.

"Our community is at war," she said. "We have to get a handle on it before it's really too late."

Burguan said he has relationships with some locals to whom he turns to calm heated situations.

"When we feel we have that connection, that can make a difference, [but] we don't necessarily have that influence everywhere," he said.

In the aftermath of Jason's death, there has been an outpouring of grief and calls for change. Churches embraced the Spears family, bringing them food and offering prayers and help with the burial. Residents have held vigils and peace walks.

Some local leaders say the strong sense of unity that enveloped the city after the December terror attack is helping it pull together now.

The attacks "showed our community that we were amazingly well-prepared for something that was out of anyone's ability to predict," said Major Daniel Henderson, of the Salvation Army San Bernardino Corps.

Now, he said, "people are not throwing up their hands in despair. They're saying, 'Let's move forward. Let's make the changes we need to make.'"

On Thursday, Terrance Stone, president and chief executive of Young Visionaries Youth Leadership Academy, organized a town hall meeting where about 200 officials and residents addressed the violence.

Stone said he felt compelled to do something after the spate of shootings. But, he said, the roots of San Bernardino's crime are deep and need long-term attention.

He ticked off the names of children who died of gun violence in the city before Jason.

In 2011, 3-year-old Nylah Franco-Torres was killed when someone opened fire on her family's home. One year earlier, Amarion Adams, 6, was struck in the head in a drive-by shooting while at a barbecue with his family.

In each case, Stone said, there were vigils and marches and official vows to combat the violence.

But San Bernardino's residents need jobs, mental health resources, social services and medical care, he said.

"With the magnitude of the problems the city has … there's no cookie-cutter solution to what's happening," he said.

Stone finds hope in a number of locals working to bring some of those resources to the city.

Jason Spears' mother, Shauna Zneidi, said the threat of violence in her neighborhood was so persistent that she kept her youngest son inside as much as possible.

Before he died, she said, she sent his 16-year-old brother away after someone knocked on their door and threatened to kill him.

Local gangs are "running our neighborhood like terrorists," Zneidi said.

She sees glimmers of change in the aftermath of her son's death. But, she asks, at what cost? "It should not have taken the death of my son."

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

Twitter: @palomaesquivel

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 27, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Fighting back against San Bernardino violence - City's residents say they've had enough of neighborhood shootings." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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