Someone had removed a window screen from outside, prompting an unnerved young Encanto couple to dial 911 at 6 p.m. When officers finally arrived close to midnight, the weary pair dragged themselves to the door. They had gone to bed hours before.
The story is common in a city of 1.1 million people and 400 square miles where there are sometimes fewer than 100 officers on the streets at one time. And 25% to 30% of the time, the city’s patrols fall below the recommended minimum staffing for public safety. For some of the busiest stations, patrols are understaffed half the time.
“My view is that San Diego is a dangerously underpoliced city,” said Norman Stamper, executive assistant police chief. “The calls are stacked up beyond belief, and it just gets worse and worse.”
These days, San Diego detectives no longer investigate burglaries unless the victim can identify the suspect, although an officer eventually is sent to process the paperwork. No detective has been added to the burglary, juvenile or crimes-against-persons divisions in a decade, at a time when the city grew by 27%.
Earlier this year, cops stopped showing up at scenes of traffic accidents where nobody is injured, which happens roughly 20,000 times a year. While life-and-death calls for emergency usually bring a response within six to eight minutes, routine calls got neglected, 20 to 30 at a time per patrol, only to be answered six or seven hours later.
When the police do show up, sometimes a shift later, there is little more they can do than dispense advice. Some have recommended to homeowners that they consider purchasing a handgun for protection, knowing full well that their odds of thwarting an attacker may be better that way.
‘Other cities have cops coming out of their ears compared to what we have,” Police Chief Bob Burgreen said. “Cities half our size in the Midwest and back East have more cops than us.”
The low ratio of officers to population stems from the city’s frugal tax policies before Proposition 13. City leaders purposely kept property tax rates down and wound up penalized when the state based appropriations of money on how much local governments had spent before the 1978 initiative.
For three years running, the city has provided about 1.6 officers for every 1,000 residents, ranking ninth among the country’s 10 largest cities. That compares to six cops per thousand in Philadelphia, four in Chicago, more than three each from Detroit and New York City, and two or more in Dallas, Houston and Phoenix.
At a recent conference of police chiefs, Burgreen learned that the Dallas City Council had approved enough officers to bring that city to three per thousand. A city smaller than San Diego by about 100,000 residents, Dallas has none of the patrol problems generated here by an international border, a large military presence and millions of tourists.
Chicago’s police chief told Burgreen that he wouldn’t even be attempting “neighborhood policing,” a program of getting officers more acquainted with the residents on their beat that Burgreen long has espoused. With four officers per 1,000 population, he couldn’t spare the manpower.
“The San Diego City Council said it wanted to get up to two officers per thousand,” Burgreen said. “That was 10 years ago.”
But even 1.6 officers is misleading. The department has 1,019 patrol openings in its budget, but has gotten around to filling only 971 of those jobs. Sick time, vacations and injuries mean that 939 are actually working, or .85 officers per thousand.
In a year in which the city broke a record for homicides in October, in which aggravated assault is up 77% over the past five years and where auto theft is routinely among the worst in the nation, San Diego is perilously underguarded, law enforcement officials say.
The night before Halloween, more than 200 people jammed Blessed Sacrament School to talk about crime along El Cajon Boulevard in the Mid-City area. Nobody had a bad word for the police. Almost everybody asked for more cops.
Many were painfully aware that the eastern patrol, responsible for 230,000 people from San Carlos to Normal Heights in the largest area the department covers, cannot fight crime adequately.
On one day last February, 17 officers worked the early watch and 20 were on the afternoon-to-midnight shift. Overnight, 12 were on patrol, or one officer for every 19,185 people, when four times that number should have been working, according to the department’s own standards for minimum staffing.
“It’s absolutely unforgivable,” said Brian Bennett, the principal of Blessed Sacrament for the past 13 years. “The answer we get is that the more police are out there, the more arrests will be made with no place to put them. The answer should be that putting more people on the street is a deterrent to crime.”
Crime within the eastern patrol area has increased by one-third from 1988 to last year. Aggravated assault and overall violent crime has doubled in the area.
Along El Cajon Boulevard, long the workplace for prostitutes and now home to an explosive drug and gang culture, people are even reluctant to leave home, Bennett said.
“We have senior citizens in this area . . . who believe life ends for them when the sun goes down,” he said. “Talk to any church along El Cajon Boulevard and ask how many of the elderly come to any sort of function after 4:30 p.m. They don’t. Nobody should be a prisoner in their own home.”
Just as at Blessed Sacrament, those who have attended other crime forums hosted by Burgreen throughout the city have expressed similar thoughts.
“Everywhere I go, they would like more police in the community, they think police do a real good job, they are tired of drug dealers on their streets and corners, and they are willing to pay for it,” the police chief said.
Whether anyone is willing to pay for it remains to be seen. In 1990, about 68% of the voters approved a $25-million police communications system. In 1988, about 51% voted for a half-cent sales tax for new jails and courtrooms that has since accumulated $350 million and awaits a state Supreme Court ruling on its legality.
A citizens committee of the City Council is now studying a number of ballot propositions, including a proposal to add more police to the existing ranks.
But, to two City Council members, it is virtually impossible to meet the department’s expectations that it will ever get the two officers per thousand population it wants.
Judy McCarty, whose district includes both affluent and crime-ridden areas of northeastern San Diego, said the council looked two years ago at increasing the rate of officers but found it would create a $60-million budget gap.
Without the proper jail space, new courtrooms and more judges, she said, the issue of how many police officers are on the street is moot. For the most part, misdemeanor offenses, including assault cases and small-time narcotics sales, result in a written citation where a promise to appear in court is just that--a promise.
“I said it two years ago,” she said. “What is the point of two officers per thousand when we’re arresting the same people over and over again?”
If the state Supreme Court rules in January that the county can use Proposition A money for new jails and courtrooms, law enforcement will finally have some of the money to make arrests stick.
But both McCarty and Councilman John Hartley believe that the Police Department could do a better job of making do with what they have and do more to investigate the underlying nature of crime.
“We have enough officers to do the job. This has nothing to do with quantity,” Hartley said. “We need neighborhood policing, getting neighborhood watches on every block. Unfortunately, it’s not a high priority. It’s the department’s last priority.”
The police reserve program, a group of volunteers that once numbered 400, is down to 100, he said. Many of the storefront substations have been closed.
McCarty doubts that there will be any support for a June ballot proposition that calls for hiring more officers because of tough economic times.
“I wouldn’t support it unless I knew it would pass,” she said.
The most obvious avenue of support should come from the San Diego Police Officers Assn., the labor group that represents most officers. But the association has been lying low for years, preferring to concentrate on getting higher salaries, vice president Ron Newman said.
Rather than speak about two officers per thousand, Newman said, the council should be debating a higher ratio, like 2.4 per thousand. He promised that the POA will be doing much more to promote its position in the months to come.
“Nobody has picked up the ball on the political end of getting more police and acknowledging that criminal justice here is a problem,” he said. “We are at a crossroads because we know the people in our community are being shortchanged drastically. It is now a front-burner issue.”
In the meantime, Burgreen is busily trying to pry 60 to 70 officers from desk jobs and back into uniform. But it will mean that much less in other investigative areas, he says.
“We’re just moving change from one pocket to the other in order to put more people out on the street,” he said.
Officers Per Population DETROIT PHILADELPHIA CHICAGO NEW YORK LOS ANGELES HOUSTON DALLAS PHOENIX SAN DIEGO SAN ANTONIO Below the Safety Level
A study of January, May, September and October, 1991, staffing levels found that some divisions of the San Diego Police Department are woefully understaffed. The following is the percentage of shifts at all divisions that did not meet the department’s basic public safety standards for those months:
January May Sept. October 1. Northern 32 42 43 31 2. Northeastern 6 7 8 15 3. Western 44 54 55 48 4. Eastern 32 44 55 30 5. Central 55 24 14 9 6. Southeastern 19 18 19 13 7. Southern 3 14 24 27 Average 28 30 30 25
Source: San Diego Police Department monthly staffing reports.