No one questions that gangs are a problem in San Jose. According to the Police Officers Association, there are fifty gangs with at least 9,000 validated members active in the city. But no one questions that the city is also faced with severe budget difficulties that force it to find more effective ways to expend its resources. One step that went into effect on Sunday is the elimination of the 21-officer Violent Crime Enforcement Team, an elite unit devoted to combating gang activity in the city. The San Jose Police Officers Association is dead set against it, and took out a full page ad in the Merc on Sunday to condemn the decision.

No police officers have lost their jobs as a result of the decision, but the unit, which focused exclusively on gang activity, now has fewer members, and it has been merged with a recast Metro Unit, which patrols the city. The officers’ responsibilities, which were once exclusively gang-related, have been expanded to all Metro Unit tasks, including basic patrolling and responding to crimes and accidents. Outgoing Police Chief Rob Davis, a supporter of the decision, downplayed the significance of the decision by saying that the officers will continue to fight against gangs, “along with some other things.”

It’s the other things, rather than a sharp focus on gangs, that has some people worried. Police union Vice President Jim Unland warns that this dilutes the SJPD’s effectiveness in fighting gangs, because there will be no officers tasked specifically with this. His concerns were echoed by City Councilmember Ash Kalra, who said, “Without VCET, we can’t do it. They were doing the real heavy lifting against gangs.”

SJPOA President George Beattie was even more pessimistic, saying that the decision would have “a devastating impact on the city.” He went on to point out that “the majority of homicides in San Jose today are gang related.” Beattie made his remarks at a strip mall in East San Jose where a twelve-year-old boy was shot in the head last Halloween. The boy was an innocent victim of alleged gang violence.

The Mayor’s office issued a response explaining that the decision was forced upon the city because of budgetary constraints. Mayor Reed himself was more specific, blaming skyrocketing pension costs for police officers on the decision. It was either reorganization or layoffs, he indicated, and the SJPD could not carry out its duties with fewer officers on the job.
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