A strange thing happened to Marcelino Flores three years ago when Officer Ruben Sandoval arrested him for sniffing glue: Flores found a friend.
Sandoval "was pretty cool," said Flores, an 18-year-old member of the Center Street Gang. "He arrested me, but he was nice about it. He tried to talk to us like a friend. And now we are friends."
So when gang members were hanging out in an alley a few weeks ago, trying to figure out some way to remove the red, gold, white and green graffiti that they had sprayed on garage doors and walls of the buildings, they called Sandoval.
"We came up with the idea of cleaning it up, but we couldn't afford the paint," said 19-year-old Alex Villalobos. "It didn't look nice and we got to keep the neighborhood looking nice. We didn't know who to talk to until Sandoval came and helped us out."
With the gang's initiative and with help from Sandoval and the Vine Street Neighborhood Task Force, a local citizens group that is working with city officials to clean up garbage and abandoned cars in this central Oceanside neighborhood, the community held a painting party Saturday that many citizens hope will inspire other residents to improve the looks of their neighborhoods.
A La Jolla real estate developer bankrolled paint brushes and 20 gallons of paint for the gang and a nearby McDonald's restaurant supplied hamburgers for the workers who painted over the alley's graffiti in the 400 block of Brooks Street near Division Street.
News of the Center Street Gang's plans is spreading around the city and residents are hoping that other street gangs will channel their restless energy into similar useful projects.
Sandoval is excited about the work the gang has done. "It was a great thing to see," he said.
Sandoval said he was going to suggest that gang members paint over the graffiti "but they were one step ahead of me."
Sandoval said helping gang members turn away from street life is one of the kicks he gets from working with the Oceanside Police Department's gang unit. Along with his partner, Bill Olsen, he monitors gang activity throughout the city and tries to develop a rapport with the members.
"We try to build a situation where they feel they are free to ask us questions about the law," Sandoval said. "They understand we're out there to assist them."
Oceanside has three documented gangs, Sandoval said. The Center Street Gang has about 25 members. The Posole has 50 to 75 members and is probably the city's largest gang, he said. Another gang, the Mesa, has about 15 members.
Despite gang members' usual negative perception of the police, Sandoval said, he and his partner visit the gangs' neighborhoods daily and they think they have succeeded in gaining the members' trust.
The gang detail is "one of the most positive things from the Police Department standpoint that we've been able to offer the community," Sandoval said. For the police, it has accomplished a long-sought objective: learning what's going on among the gangs themselves.
"We can go out there today and talk to the kids and know them by their street names and by their first names, and they know us," he said.
Many gang members have been arrested on drug, burglary and assault charges, Sandoval said, and many are school dropouts.
Sandoval believes gang members get into trouble because they lack constructive things to do. They don't know where to go for job information or drug counseling and, because of that, they just continue to hang around aimlessly, he said.
So the Police Department has become a sort of resource base for gang members, Sandoval explained, helping them square things with school authorities, or find an agency that can help them kick a drug habit or tip them to job opportunities.
"We even call different centers, trying to open the door for them," he said. "They are using us as a resource more than they ever did."
Oceanside doesn't have the gang problems that plague larger cities like Los Angeles or San Diego, Sandoval said, but the local gangs are active.
Early last year, the Posole and the Center Street Gang fought each other consistently during a two-week period. The casualties were limited to minor cuts and bruises among gang members but an innocent bystander was shot in the foot.
Arrests of gang members--for drug use, vandalism or burglary--continue. But, Sandoval said, "We have noticed a decrease in assaults with deadly weapons and in drive-by shootings."
Overall, gang-related crime in the city is down and Sandoval attributes the decline to the rapport he and Olsen have developed with gang members.
"I can go into the other neighborhoods and I'm accepted equally by the other members," Sandoval said. "The names are different but we still have that same openness."
Alicia Bedwell, a member of the Vine Street Neighborhood Task Force, said she is thrilled that the gang members are working to improve the community.
"We had no idea about this cleanup, but we want them to feel that they're part of the community in a positive way," she said. "Actions speak louder than words, and we're at the point where we need some action."
Michael Cafagna, the real estate developer who donated paint and brushes to the Center Street Gang, said he hopes the gang members' actions will inspire other people in the community to take pride in their neighborhoods.
"We're trying to get people interested in improving the neighborhood from the gang level up," he said. "If part of the community is moving in that direction, maybe it will spread. There are a lot of interested people who want to have it cleaned up."
The Center Street Gang has no plans for future cleanup projects, Villalobos said, but some members want to work with city officials to build a park within their neighborhood. Young children in the area around Brooks and Division streets play tag with cars because there is no place to play but the streets.
Sandoval said he hopes the painting party also will lead to more friendly encounters between the different gangs, perhaps even a friendly athletic contest or two.
"I'd like to some day take rival gangs and have them challenge each other to a softball or football game," he said.
The gang members "don't often feel good about themselves," Sandoval said. But, because of the response their alley cleanup project has gotten from the community, "they are walking around with their heads up and that's important."