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Lompoc city leaders, stakeholders encourage unity to combat youth violence in virtual crime forum

Santa Maria Times - 05.02.2021

Feb. 5—A group of Lompoc stakeholders, including Mayor Jenelle Osborne and Police Chief Joseph Mariani, gathered for a virtual public forum recently to address the recent uptick in youth gang-related violence and shootings.

In addition to city leaders, the Monday forum included Pastor James Earl Cray of True Vine Bible Fellowship, Lompoc Boys and Girls Club Director Devika Stalling and Chuck Madson, a Santa Barbara County drug counselor and founder of Future youth center.

They discussed strategies for reducing youth violence in the city, although the discussion's main theme was that government can't fix the problem by itself.

"We don't solve these problems by putting the burden on [a single entity]," Osborne said. "It requires all of us to invest a portion of ourselves."

Lompoc had four homicides in 2020, a drop from seven in 2019.

Although barely a month has elapsed in 2021, however, Lompoc has experienced nine shootings, which have killed one person and injured two teenagers.

Part of the issue is the understaffed Lompoc Police Department, according to Mariani, who said that task forces formed years ago to address problems such as gang violence, have been dissolved and officers have been reassigned due to staffing issues. As well, he said, tools such as gang injunctions and a statewide database have become constroversial.

"A major incident pretty much taps all our resources," Mariani said. "At the end of the day, LPD depends on the community to provide information."

At the same time, Mariani said, fulfilling his police department's basic responsibility of public safety has come at the price of community outreach, including the elimination of school resource officers.

"We get caught up in police work going from call to call and so it's important to take a little bit of time to talk to people," Mariani said. "It's important that younger officers get comfortable with talking to people."

Enter 37-year-old James Earl Cray, a pastor with Lompoc's True Vine Bible Fellowship, who received an invitation to the forum only hours before it was to begin.

Cray moved to Lompoc from Hazlehurst, Georgia on Nov. 2, after responding to an open position at True Vine.

Cray said he was nearly trapped in a life of gang violence growing up outside Savannah, Georgia, even though he was a talented football athlete and was surrounded by positive influences. He's seen people get shot and watched dozens of friends and acquaintances go to jail.

The life-changing moment for him was several years ago, when he was a senior in college and got into an altercation at a club with an individual just before the start of the football season. The person followed Cray and his friend, pulled alongside his SUV and shot into the vehicle, striking his friend.

While he offers a spiritual path for youth, Cray also said faith leaders in the city need to unify with each other and ultimately join forces with other leaders to provide more opportunity for youth.

Stalling, who has organized against youth and gang violence in the past, would like to hold another walk through certain communities to engage youth, although the pandemic has limited her ability.

"That is my sole focus, is our youth," Stalling said.

Madson agreed with Stalling and echoed the panel's overall message of unity and encouraged residents, or anyone else, to email him with solutions directly to futurelompoc@gmail.com.

"If you're sitting there and you want to know what to do or how you can help, please reach out," Madson said. "Shoot me an email and I'll hook you up with somebody in town who can really use your support."

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