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Violent Crime Is Up Sharply in San Diego

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Violent crime in San Diego, the barometer of the city’s danger level, rose sharply over the past year, continuing an unabated, eight-year climb in murders, rapes, robberies and assaults--at a rate projected to eclipse the city’s most violent 12-month period ever.

The latest string of grim statistics, gravely recited Wednesday by Police Chief Bob Burgreen to a City Council subcommittee, shows that San Diego has already broken its homicide record and is fast reaching unprecedented numbers of aggravated assaults and robberies.

At the current pace, the number of reported rapes will rank as third worst in the city’s history.

“None of the statistics surprise me,” Burgreen said. “This city is as big and violent as I’ve ever seen it.”

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Burgreen and City Manager Jack McGrory have assembled a 42-member committee of leaders in law enforcement, business, education, social services, religion, the legal community and the media to dissect the reasons behind the record pace and recommend solutions within three months.

The committee includes the county’s district attorney, sheriff and medical examiner, the head of the local FBI office, the chief of the U.S. Border Patrol’s San Diego office and the police chief of National City.

“We will do what we can to turn the tide the other way,” Burgreen said.

In his remarks to the council committee, he suggested that a combination of drug activity and street gangs is responsible for the spiraling figures. After the meeting, Burgreen told reporters that a flat economy has made the situation even worse.

Street robberies, for example, are “due in part to people needing money to buy drugs, but also in part to the economy,” he said. “The economy is down, people are out of work, you’re seeing more street robberies.”

Not only are such crimes projected to eclipse last year’s total by nearly 1,000, but aggravated assault--in which major injuries result--are predicted to total nearly 8,000, also close to 1,000 more than last year. San Diego’s homicide record was broken in late October, with a total of 181 projected by year’s end.

Altogether, incidents of violent crime are expected to reach 13,897 this year, breaking the record of 12,016 set in 1990, for an increase of about 16%.

The bad news is tempered by statistics that show overall crime, including burglaries, thefts and auto thefts, fell by 4% from last year and is likely to remain low.

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This is the second straight year in which the overall crime rate dropped, a decrease that is attributed to people taking more precautions in protecting their homes, cars and other property.

San Diego ranks last among the 10 most populous U.S. cities in homicides per 1,000 population, and ninth in crimes per 1,000.

Community leaders say those numbers, although comforting, do little to alter the reality that San Diego, the nation’s sixth-largest city, has become an increasingly menacing place to live and work.

Six years ago, officials stopped imprisoning people convicted of misdemeanor crimes because jail space was scarce. Violent crime soared 36%, mostly because of a large increase in assaults. Two years ago, as the crowding became more severe, people with minor felony convictions were turned loose. Fueled by a 21% increase in robberies, the violent crime rate increased 18%.

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With a rise in gang activity and border-related crimes, projected figures for 1991 paint the bleakest picture yet: 181 homicides, 491 rapes, 5,273 robberies and 7,952 aggravated assaults. The overall projected violent crime total is more than triple the rate in 1978 and double that of 1985.

Faced with such startling statistics, the Police Department has embarked on a program of “neighborhood policing,” in which officers infiltrate an area targeted by the community as dangerous, get to know the people who live there, and return again and again until crime is reduced.

Already considered successful in City Heights, the program will be expanded to Linda Vista, Logan Heights, San Ysidro, the eastern part of downtown, the Skyline-Meadowbrook area, Golden Hill and the area of 43rd Street and National Avenue, Burgreen announced Wednesday.

Burgreen said he wants 10 officers assigned to each of the seven target areas and will have to pull the 70 bodies from elsewhere in the department, a process he called “painful.” In addition, he said, 10 officers are being added to the street narcotics division to ferret out drug dealers.

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San Diego has one of the lowest ratios of officers per 1,000 population in the country, and the president of the police labor union grumbled afterward about Burgreen’s pronouncements.

“Now he wants 70 and 10?” asked Harry O. Eastus, president of the San Diego Police Officers Assn. “Something’s got to give.”

The union is working behind the scenes to possibly sponsor a ballot initiative next year that, if approved, would add hundreds of officers to the force. Union leaders have not yet decided how the positions would be paid for.

But even Burgreen acknowledged that flooding the streets with officers--as he has done since September in the downtown Gaslamp Quarter, with 14 extra officers a night--might do no more than shift the problem elsewhere. Large numbers of the homeless, who frequented downtown, have turned up in Balboa Park, generating complaints.

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Several City Council members said they do not believe that more officers are the answer. Instead, they said, they want to use the existing force better and persuade citizens to get involved in controlling their destiny.

“We, the residents of San Diego, have let things get out of hand,” said newly elected Councilman George Stevens. “Only the residents can get it back under control.”

It is up to the family members and friends of drug dealers, gang members and other alleged criminals to stop such illegal activities, Stevens said, even if they have to report one another to police.

“Regardless of the threats in our lives, of who we have to turn in or report, we have to do it,” he said. “It is going to be mothers against daughters and fathers against sons and wives against husbands. We are at that point. There have to be some standards set in every home and in every family.”

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Stevens suggested that Burgreen consider an idea endorsed by Municipal Judge Larry Stirling, who recommended that each police officer and sheriff’s deputy serve one of 690,000 outstanding warrants each shift to get violators off the street and put more money into city and county budgets.

Some of those violators set free have criminal histories and have been cited dozens of times. Because there is not yet a jail for such offenders, officials say, they are given tickets and never see a judge.

Stirling’s idea, Burgreen said, would be “great if I had a jail to put them in or if these people had any money to make bail. About 90% of those booked in jail don’t have a dime in their pockets.”

The situation, while disturbing, does not seem hopeless for Mike Duckor, a lawyer who has lived in San Diego for 21 years. Duckor is one of the 42 selected to serve on Burgreen and McGrory’s task force on violent crime.

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“I think we have a small enough physical community to put controls on the problem so we don’t end up like (South-Central) Los Angeles,” he said. “With local citizen support, community groups walking the streets and more of a police presence in our community, we can do a great deal to reduce violent crime.”

Violent Crime in San Diego 1986 TOTAL: 8,481 1987 TOTAL: 9,112 1988 TOTAL: 9,171 1989 TOTAL: 10,124 1990 TOTAL: 12,016 1991 TOTAL: 13,897


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