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CALIFORNIA ALBUM : Fighting Crime and Cutbacks : Violence-Plagued Community Objects as Council Trims 11 Police Jobs to Balance Budget

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While he was stopped at a red light with his wife and 6-year-old son earlier this month, Oklahoma businessman David Sullivan felt the bullets from a 9-millimeter pistol ripping his chest open.

En route to a favorite restaurant during a family vacation, Sullivan, 42, got caught in the cross-fire of a shootout by rival gangs. Twenty-two such groups prey on the streets of this blue-collar city of 58,632 in the shadow of San Diego.

Four days later, Sullivan made a dramatic appearance before the City Council, telling them their decision to eliminate 11 officers from an 80-member force already 11 below its allotment would prove to be a tragic mistake that puts all citizens--and visitors--at risk.

National City is compiling some sobering statistics: It has the highest violent crime rate and highest overall crime rate in San Diego County, the second-highest violent crime rate in the state, and the 13th-highest auto theft rate in the nation.

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Beset by many of the problems that plague communities near the international border, ranging from illegal immigration to homelessness to drugs and gang activity, National City finds itself even more defenseless at battling such social ills.

As cities throughout the state respond to budget cuts by reducing anything except police units, National City has taken a different tack--and set off a storm of controversy.

Residents speak openly about being afraid to venture outdoors. And merchants by the dozen talk of leaving, saying that any hope of luring tourists or new residents has all but vanished.

As Sullivan told the council: “If I’d have stopped one inch later, my wife would be dead. . . . I’d be dead. If you can’t drive down the middle of your town without a gang fight, you’ve got nothing. Your priorities need to be to protect your city.”

Despite cheers and applause from the hundreds gathered in the chambers--at one point, he even showed stunned council members his wounds--Sullivan failed to elicit the response he sought.

Mayor George Waters defended the layoffs as a necessary decision, saying that police officers should have taken a proposed 5% pay cut, as did other city employees, to make up a $2-million budget deficit.

Lanny Roark, president of the National City Police Officers’ Assn., called the council’s decision to lay off 11 officers--which, coupled with the 11 existing openings, created a 27.5% reduction in the force--"extortion. . . . They’re telling us, ‘We’ll hold these people hostage until you give us what we want.’ ”

National City’s decision to reduce its force--in the wake of soaring crime statistics--has made it a place to be avoided, Roark said.

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In fact, the National City Police Department announced this week that overall crime has risen 16% since the 11 officers were laid off, with homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault and other violent crimes rising sharply.

David Allen, 65, the owner of Niederfrank’s Ice Cream, a National City institution since 1948, says that he, like a lot of merchants, would move his business elsewhere if it were not more practical to retire first.

Allen pointed to the front of his ice cream parlor, which is peppered with bullet holes, and said, “Hey, I’m packin’ again"--referring to a .357 magnum.

Lamb’s Players Theatre, said to be one of the finest regional theaters in San Diego County, has decided to move to tony Coronado, despite owning its own building in National City, where patrons have suffered car thefts and other vandalism.

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Ronald Schlichtenmyer, the owner of Bailey’s Hardware, said he recently phoned police to complain about a half-naked transient couple having intercourse on the sidewalk by his store at 1:15 p.m. on a weekday.

Almost two hours later, a dispatcher called Schlichtenmyer to see if he still needed help--long after the couple had gone, he said. Although his business has been a fixture in National City since 1949, Schlichtenmyer, 62, is planning to move.

Mayor Waters blames the state for the problems, saying its decision to strip revenues from cities has left National City in an untenable situation. National City had built up a $6-million surplus, Waters said, but the state is taking $8 million of its property tax revenues.

Roark, the police negotiator, recently hired two outside auditors, who concluded independently that the city actually has a surplus of more than $20 million, which Waters says are restricted funds. Roark says they are discretionary funds shelved under the city’s self-imposed restrictions.

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Many say that National City, like many towns in California, is caught in a cross-fire of change. Except for a Latino woman, its five-member City Council is dominated by white men, most of them elderly.

For years, this coastal city of 10 square miles just south of San Diego was home to retirees, who in Roark’s opinion are clinging to a precarious hold on power. They are, he said, “terribly out of touch” with the city’s populace, made up largely of Latinos (53%), Asians-Americans and other minorities.

But the police have generated their own share of criticism. In the 1980s, the National City Police Department was accused of numerous civil rights violations and was investigated more than once by the federal government.

Roark and others say the department has changed, adding more Latino officers, hiring a new police chief and spearheading community education efforts. He accuses the city of stifling such change, noting that several of the laid-off officers are Latinos.

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One is Julian Villagomez, 28, who despite being officer of the year in 1992, was recently handed a pink slip. Last week, he and hundreds of others marched in a picket line in front of City Hall, carrying such banners as “First in Crime--Last in No. of Officers.”

“The City Council here just doesn’t care,” Villagomez said. “They’ve got what they need--why worry about anyone else? But it’s gotten to the point where, if you call 911 in National City, you’re lucky if anyone returns the call. This is an unsafe place, man. And it’s gonna get worse. A hell of a lot worse.”


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