As police mull listening devices in city’s north end, community asks why city never listened to them first
A ShotSpotter listening device is pictured on top of a light pole in San Diego. Police there deployed the technology in 2016.

As police mull listening devices in city’s north end, community asks why city never listened to them first

Think you know what's happening in Desert Highland Gateway Estates? Think again. In this comprehensive report about the community, The Post dispels many of the myths.

It’s not hard to see how we got here. A community seemingly designed to be disregarded spends decades pleading for programs that will offer its youth safety from the streets and train its adults for careers that pay a living wage. Some are offered, but they aren’t enough.

What happens without those programs is Census Tract 446.05. The roughly 2-square-mile section of northern Palm Springs, home to 12.5% of the city’s population, has 1.5 times more people living in poverty than the city average, including 42% of children under 18. Its median household income — $36,827 — is half that of the Riverside County average.

Those numbers shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows nationwide conversations surrounding disparities that exist in minority communities. And by any defining quality, Census Tract 446.05 is such a community. Data from 2019 shows that roughly 70% of the 6,000 people living in an area between North Sunrise Way and North Palm Canyon Drive identify as non-white. That data also shows:

  • 14% of the population is Black, compared to 4% of the city’s overall population.
  • 48% of the population is Hispanic, compared to 27% of the city’s overall population.

The area is home to three low-income apartment projects and a similar mobile home development, a handful of marijuana grow operations and retail stores, and a fuel station with a glowing red sign that promotes the liquor inside. What it’s not home to is a grocery store, bank, or medical offices.

What’s coming next has further frustrated area residents who often describe their section of the city as a “dumping ground” for projects that other parts of Palm Springs have not been asked to absorb:

  • A new market offering more liquor is expected to open this summer at the intersection of West San Rafael and North Palm Canyon drives;
  • Across the street from the market, construction of a 60-unit affordable housing project is underway;
  • The city is moving quickly to stand up a homeless services center off McCarthy Road. Ironically, it will include many programs for unhoused city residents that residents of the impacted neighborhood have been pleading for;
  • A developer wants to build more than 80o homes on nearby land with starting prices well above reach for many in the adjacent neighborhood.

The stress of living in fear

Researchers call the census tract something else — a poverty pocket. They commonly form as the result of land use policies dating back decades that see industrial projects and low-income housing shoehorned into only one section of a city while access to healthcare and healthy food is miles away. They also form through redlining — a discriminatory practice in which services (financial and otherwise) are withheld from potential customers who reside in neighborhoods labeled “hazardous” to investment.

Lack of access and opportunities enjoyed by other neighborhoods often affects children the most. In Desert Highland Gateway Estates, considered a food desert due to its distance from a grocery store, a 2017 study found 1.6 times more teenagers were obese in the community when compared to a control group of other Palm Springs teens. The Desert Highland teens were also 1.6 times less likely to have been to a dentist or doctor’s office in the past year.

In Palm Springs, the situation in the census tract was further exacerbated by the events that took place in what is known as Section 14 — a one-square-mile section of tribal land in the center of the city that was home to many minority families up until the late 1950s and mid-1960s when many were forced out of their homes. Some who chose not to relocate to Banning, Beaumont or elsewhere settled in what is now the northern part of the city, but at the time was unincorporated land.

Those who reside in the community often compare its conditions to those found in Section 14, where some, but not all, homes were cobbled together with any available materials and infrastructure such as plumbing and paved roads was nonexistent.

The back of a bench at the James O. Jesse Desert Highland Unity Center tells the story of how those forced out of Section 14 eventually landed in Desert Highland Gateway Estates. A state official called the events at Section 14 “a city-engineered Holocaust.”

City officials have moved to make amends for the events that occurred in Section 14. They’ve voted to relocate a statue of the city’s mayor at the time from in front of City Hall, issued an official apology, and have agreed to look at what reparations, if any, can be offered to those who were displaced. All the moves are welcome, but are seen by some as little more than performative politics that fail to address more pressing needs members of the community have been speaking about for years.

Among those needs — outlined in a health assessment of the Desert Highland Gateway Estates neighborhood conducted in 2014 by Loma Linda University — are vocational training and job placement programs, after-school programs for at-risk youth, substance abuse programs, and improved public safety.

“The community stated ‘stress’ as the most common cause of chronic disease,” the report states. “Further discussion revealed that community members don’t feel safe in their own neighborhoods due to lack of safe streets for exercising and lack of police presence.”

New approach from police

Palm Springs Police Chief Andy Mills, only a few months into the role of top cop, has placed the safety of the Desert Highland Gateway Estates neighborhood at the top of his priority list. Last November, on just his second day on the job, he attended a meeting of the neighborhood’s Community Action Association. He later walked the streets with Mayor Pro Tem Grace Garner, who represents the community in District 1.

Then came February, which saw two apparent homicides in less than a week off Rosa Parks Road, adding to all-too-frequent reports of shootings that often leave people injured and have the community “suffering from PTSD,” as one resident said during a meeting on March 8.

A Feb. 25 incident was eerily familiar to one that occurred in the neighborhood 25 years ago. In the incident last month, police say a 45-year-old delivery driver was shot and killed at 6:30 p.m. for no apparent reason. In March 1997, a 29-year-old man delivering newspapers in the neighborhood was shot and killed during the predawn hours, also without apparent motivation.

“The gang activity has made parents afraid of children, friends afraid of friends,” a Palm Springs police officer told a Los Angeles newspaper at the time. “People don’t feel safe in their homes. The drug dealers prey on the neighborhood.”

Mills is vowing to turn the tables on those who create an atmosphere of fear in the neighborhood. But he’s also vowing to use different methods to decrease that fear. Yes, police should be more visible in the community, he said, but not in the way they were before his arrival.

“In the past the focus was on reactive investigations first,” he said during a community meeting March 8, explaining that police only came to the neighborhood after reports of violence. “There was a saturation patrol being done also. They would send a bunch of officers up here, stop everything moving, try to find guns and put people in jail. The third tactic was saturating the neighborhood with patrol cars driving through the neighborhood.”

After knocking on 100 different doors, and speaking to dozens of residents in the community, Mills said he believes there is widespread support for some of the new ideas he is yet to formally present. Among those is the use of gunshot listening technology.

A graphic on the ShotSpotter website explains how the technology works.

The technology comes in the form of a surveillance system that uses hidden microphone sensors to detect the sound and location of gunshots, generating an alert for the time and place. The devices are typically mounted on lamp posts or buildings. One company offering the technology, ShotSpotter, charges cities up to $90,000 per square mile per year to implement the service, with a $10,000 per square mile one-time service initiation fee.

“Don’t ask what was being done,” Mills cautioned community members about past police practices. “We’re choosing a different path, because while those things might work temporarily they don’t work in the long run and we are trying to find long-term solutions.”

Policing or harassing?

Some of Mills’ thinking around long-term solutions doesn’t sit well with members of the community. Had the city worked to establish programs aimed at reaching youth, or made more efforts to bring a job training program to the city years ago, they say, gun violence and other criminal activity may be less of an issue today.

“We’ve been asking for affordable housing, job training programs, and more activities for our youth,” said Cynthia Session, president of the Desert Highland Gateway Estates Community Action Association and a lifelong city resident. “I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know a lot of times policing turns into harassment.”

Law enforcement agencies say using ShotSpotter or similar technologies isn’t intended to invade the privacy of community members. Instead, they maintain, it helps police arrive on the scene of a shooting sooner, more successfully gather evidence (such as shell casings), and possibly improve victim transport time, which can save lives.

Critics, however, point to studies debunking the data used to justify deploying the technology. They also say it’s all too often over-deployed in majority minority neighborhoods.

“It’s important to note that many of ShotSpotter’s claims of accuracy are generated by marketers, not engineers,” wrote Matthew Guariglia in an article appearing on the website of The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world. “(P)olice officers routinely are deployed to neighborhoods expecting to encounter an armed shooter, and instead encounter innocent pedestrians and neighborhood residents.

“This creates a real risk that police officers will interpret anyone they encounter near the projected site of the loud noises as a threat—a scenario that could easily result in civilian casualties, especially in over-policed communities.”

Teen violence and a loss of hope

Such drastic results may never play out in northern Palm Springs. What’s more likely, neighbors with experience dealing with police predict, is continued mistrust unless and until the city, its police, and adults in the neighborhood find ways to reach children before they arrive at an age many say is the point of no return.

“All these problems that happen right now came from junior high,” said one community member, pointing to frictions at nearby Raymond Cree Middle School between Black and Hispanic youth from two neighborhoods only a mile apart. “We’re talking generation after generation after generation.”

The 2017 study shows teenagers in Desert Highland and a nearby Hispanic neighborhood — Sunrise Santiago Village — have a 109% greater chance of having been involved in a physical confrontation with a peer than teenagers elsewhere in Palm Springs. At home, nearly 21% of teenagers in Desert Highland have a parent who was in jail or had been jailed, compared to 8% of teens in all of Riverside County.

Anyone jumping to the conclusion that those parents must be to blame for the teen violence would be encouraged to think again. Yes, “mass incarceration plays a major role in the dynamics and context of the Desert Highland Gateway Community,” the study found, but a strong support network of adults, low levels of drug use, and higher levels of education in the neighborhood “suggest that the issues plaguing the community do not stem from home and personal decision.”

Instead, the report concludes, “higher levels of fighting in the Desert Highland Gateway community youth, as well as the overall distrust of police in the minority community, is telling of the current context and relationship between law enforcement and minorities.”

Perhaps the most troubling statistic found in the report is that by their senior year of high school, teenagers in Desert Highland Gateway Estates have all but lost hope for their future.

In the study, hope was defined as the process of thinking about one’s goals, along with the motivation to move toward those goals. It was measured on a scale of zero to 25 points. The study showed Desert Highland teens had hope scores of about 20 points in ninth grade, but only three points in 12th grade.

“Ultimately what’s going to happen is the kids are going to go to jail, and they’re going to come back hating the police more,” said Deiter Crawford, vice president of the Community Action Association. “I’d like to see us take a more preventative approach and catch the kids when they’re five, six, seven, eight years old instead of waiting until they’re 15, 16, 17.”

To that point, police agree. But they insist that the immediate need to stop gun violence in northern Palm Springs requires an immediate solution.

“We’re relying on old school police investigative techniques,” said Palm Springs Police Department Lt. William Hutchinson. “We have delays in getting back DNA evidence, fingerprints, gunshot analysis, and search warrants to get into electronic files like cell phones and social media accounts. Then once that warrant is granted it takes time to connect the dots. It’s time-consuming and limited because the law is what it is.”

“Human life has to be the first and foremost concern in these investigations,” Hutchinson said. “How do we put every bit of technology and equipment forward to ensure we are doing everything possible to prevent another homicide?”

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