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With a Last-Minute Grant, Probation Officer Can Continue Crime Fight

Times Staff Writer

Without warning at least one night a week, Steve Sandoval takes to Fullerton’s roughest neighborhoods to check up on his charges, joined by a police officer for backup.

As an Orange County deputy probation officer, Sandoval keeps track of 40 to 50 young men and women who became involved with the city’s gangs.

Many of them teens, they are on probation under terms that call for curfews and require that they carry no weapons and stay away from gang members.

And they never know when Sandoval and his partner might show up.

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Authorities credit the unannounced visits with giving them a rare advantage in their fight against gangs. The patrols, which began 11 years ago, are made possible by a program known as CUFFS (Communities Uniting for Furthering Safety).

At a time when many gang programs are being cut back, officials said the Fullerton efforts show how a relatively small amount of money -- about $300,000 a year -- can go a long way in combating gangs.

Earlier this year, the city nearly lost the state grant that covered the cost of sending Sandoval and a local officer into the heart of gang territory for four hours a week. But the funding came through at the last minute.

As many surrounding communities scale back on gang enforcement because of budget woes, Fullerton officials said these patrols are making a difference. The number of gang killings more than doubled across Orange County this year, to 35. Fullerton recorded one such homicide this year and none last year.

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Fullerton Officer Brent Rebert, who helped write the initial CUFFS grant, said it is impossible to know how much crime has been deterred by the program. But the consequences of eliminating it, he predicted, would be severe.

Rebert, now a high school resource officer who helps to identify troubled youth, recently joined Sandoval on a tour through the maze of streets and alleys controlled by two gangs that date back several generations.

Through his contacts, Sandoval knows many of the characters. Fresh graffiti on dumpsters, garages and other buildings provides him with clues about what’s been going on since his last visit.

“The graffiti is the neighborhood newspaper,” Sandoval says, noting a new moniker he hasn’t figured out: “Confused.”

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In Baker Street’s west end territory, he spots three youths sitting on a stoop and asks Rebert to pull over. Two of the boys admit they are on probation.

They are patted down for weapons, and their probation officers are called to check them out. One of the youths is ordered to report to his probation officer the next morning for a drug test.

A few blocks away, Sandoval and Rebert approach a half-dozen young men standing in a frontyard. The contact is brief this time because none are on probation.

The pair decide to drive across town to check on a teenager who seems to be making steady progress in his efforts to break from a gang. He landed a construction job and has been working for several months.

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Sandoval says the teen has been making a good-faith attempt to stay away from his former gang associates.

But within minutes, the young man, who once went by the nickname “Little Fatso,” is being led out of his family’s apartment in handcuffs. A switchblade was found in his pocket.

The teen says he used the knife to cut fruit. But he knows he made a mistake by having it.

“This is my first job, and now I’m losing it -- for a knife,” he said. “Do I regret it? Of course. Do you think I want to be arrested right now?”

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Sandoval, who has given the young man a few breaks in the past for breaking curfew, said he can’t let him slide this time because it’s a matter of public safety.

“He wanted me to cut him another chance. I’ve done it before. But something like this is a community risk,” Sandoval says.

“It could have been worse. It could have been a gun.”


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