The number of crimes committed by San Diego gang members has jumped this year and is on pace to exceed last year.
After a year of declines, gang-related crime in San Diego has jumped in recent months, with the city logging twice as many homicides as the same time last year and 20% more gang-related crimes overall.
A spate of shootings, retaliation attacks and other crimes has put the raw number of gang-related crimes this year far ahead of the number through July 2018.
Police statistics show there were 463 gang-related crimes committed through June, up from 385 during the same period last year. That increase of 78 crimes is reflected in nearly all categories.
There have been 10 gang homicides this year, compared with five at the same time last year. There were six gang homicides recorded in all of 2018.
The statistics also show there have been more robberies, assaults with a deadly weapon and attempted murders.
It’s unclear what is behind the sudden surge in gang crime. Officials at the San Diego Police Department did not attribute the increase to a gang war, but acknowledged violence between rival gangs had intensified over the summer.
Overall, violent crime in the city has increased slightly over the last two years. That upward trend was a factor in a decision this year by Police Chief David Nisleit and top police brass to overhaul the Gang Suppression Team, which traditionally focused on combating gang crime in the region.
In April, police leaders renamed the group the Special Operations Unit and tasked it with responding to any source of violent crime across the city, including but not limited to gang activity. The move was done without any publicity.
“There was an increase in violent crime occurring in the city and [Nisleit] wanted to use the Gang Suppression Team to zero in on that issue,” said Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, the department’s spokesman. “The team was tied to crimes with a gang nexus, but he wanted to use their skill set, so he decided to expand their role.”
Among other duties, the team of officers patrolled neighborhoods where gangs were active. Though department leaders have credited the team with keeping gang crimes in check, the presence of the officers and their work was criticized by some neighborhood residents who complained of heavy-handed tactics and aggressive policing. Over the years, some activists have called for disbanding the team.
There is still a group of detectives focusing on gang crimes exclusively, Takuechi said, while the officers in the former gang team now have a broader responsibility to assist investigating violent crimes throughout the city. He said the department was hopeful the team would be able to manage both tasks of investigating violent crimes and gang crimes.
“We have a duty to respond to and investigate crimes and arrest offenders that we feel are responsible,” he said. “We’ve rebranded [the unit] because the chief saw an increase in violent crime and we cannot let that increase happen.”
Around the same time when the Gang Suppression Team was redeployed, the department also created the Gang Intervention Unit. Established in March, the group aims to work closely with community members and young people to prevent gang violence. But they do not conduct the intensive street patrols that was the hallmark of the suppression team.
The rise in gang crimes began in the same month that the Special Operations Unit was inaugurated, according to a month-by-month breakdown of gang incidents provided by police. In the first three months of the year, police logged one fewer gang crime than in the same three months in 2018.
But in April, there were 23 more gang-related crimes than in the same month a year ago. By the end of May, there were 29 more total for the year, 57 more total by June, and 78 more total by July compared with the same period last year. While data for August are not available yet, the pace has not appeared to slacken.
In one four-day period in August alone, a 19-year-old man was wounded in what police say is a gang-related shooting near Kelly Street in the Linda Vista neighborhood and four people were wounded in an exchange of gunfire between two gangs in Valencia Park on South Euclid Avenue near Logan Avenue.
The area of the Kelly Street shooting has been a particular hot spot. On May 23, Carlos Valdovinos, 16, was shot to death in a drive-by shooting. Prosecutors have charged Andy Phongsongkham with the killing. Court records say that Phongsongkham is a member of an Asian street gang and that the victim was an associate of a Latino gang.
Less than three weeks later, two people were shot near a memorial that had been set up for Valdovinos, records say. Both survived and declined to cooperate with police. Then on Aug. 7, the 19-year-old man was wounded on Kelly Street. No arrests have been made in what police say is a gang-related shooting.
That area has also experienced an increase in overall violent crimesince 2014, according to a citywide analysis of five years of violent crime by the San Diego Union-Tribune published in June. The analysis showed that violent crimes had increased 250% in that small area of Linda Vista from 2014 to 2018.
Two homicides in July also involved gang members, according to police, but investigators are unsure whether they were gang-related. On July 5, Dustin Bridwell, 37, was shot to death outside his home on Calle Gaviota in Paradise Hills. On July 13, Joaquin Ruiz was killed on Zest Street near Paradise Valley Road also in Paradise Hills.
Under state law, a gang-related crime is one that is committed at the direction of, for the benefit of or in association with a criminal street gang.
No arrests have been made in either case. Those two killings, along with a third committed June 29 that does not appear to be gang-related, prompted community leaders to start “The Peace Movement: Let’s Live, Let’s Love,” unveiled at a news conference July 23. The plan detailed 10 steps that could be implemented by residents and city officials to promote peace in their communities. They include ensuring streets are well lighted by reporting outages through the city’s Get It Done app, making sure young people participate in positive activities outside school, and developing and sharing a phone list of local organizations that provide counseling, job training and other services.
Last year the gang unit of the San Diego County district attorney’s office issued murder charges against six people in two gang-related homicides committed that year, but it did not issue any gang murder cases after May 2018, according to statistics provided by the office. Already this year murder charges have been brought against five defendants — all between May and July — in three separate cases.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Frank Jackson, who leads the unit, said prosecutors are aware of the upswing in gang crimes.
“I’ve seen the same stats and noticed the same trends,” he said. “My division is trying to be as active as possible to try to solve these, to get ahead of the curve, to try to tamp this down. There is definitely an increase over previous years.”
Jackson declined to say whether redeploying the Gang Suppression Team has led to an increase in gang crimes. “I’m going to leave it to SDPD to decide how to utilize their resources,” he said.