Almost a year after a frightening terror attack that took 14 lives here, the city of San Bernardino is facing a disturbing and unprecedented wave of crime and violence. As of August 31, there had been 150 shootings and 47 homicides in San Bernardino (plus three people who have been killed by the police), already surpassing last year’s total of 44 homicides, a total that includes the 14 people killed in the December 2, 2015 terror attack. It’s possible that there will be more murders in San Bernardino in 2016 than in any year since 1995, when 67 murders took place here.
The homicides in San Bernardino this year have disproportionately impacted the city’s black community, which comprises roughly 14 percent of San Bernardino’s population. About half of the city’s homicide victims so far this year have been black. At this pace, San Bernardino in 2016 will have a per capita homicide rate of about 31 homicides per 100,000 residents – compared to a per capita homicide rate of 18 per 100,000 in Chicago last year and seven per 100,000 in Los Angeles last year.
What’s behind the rise in violent crime in San Bernardino? Residents, police officials, and city authorities are finding no obvious or single cause or explanation. San Jose is about five times the size of San Bernardino, but only 35 homicides have happened in San Jose this year (as of August 31). San Bernardino’s total homicide count is closer to Oakland’s, a city with twice the population of San Bernardino.
WHAT’S CAUSING SAN BERNARDINO’S CRIME WAVE?
What is the cause? San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan cited statewide measures such as Proposition 47, which California voters approved in 2014. That initiative reduced some drug and property-related crimes that had been previously prosecuted as felonies to misdemeanors, meaning shorter sentences and – potentially – more criminals on the street. A San Bernardino criminal defense attorney or a local community organizer, on the other hand, might attribute the rising crime rate to the reduced funding for diversion programs for first offenders and a lack of funds for even basic services like street light repairs in some San Bernardino communities.
Prior to San Bernardino’s 2012 bankruptcy, the number of San Bernardino Police Department officers on the street had already been shrinking year-by-year. In 2008, there were about 340 police officers; now, the number is about 215. As a predictable consequence of the city’s financial woes, “We’re not getting to calls fast enough,” Chief Burguan told the Los Angeles Times. “We don’t have the capacity to investigate everything that’s reported in the city.” The chief said that he needs about 300 officers to satisfy San Bernardino’s essential police needs and more if the city hopes to turn back the current crime wave.
Census records for 2015 tell us that 213,933 residents lived in San Bernardino. That translates to only 0.9 police officers per 1,000 residents, a figure substantially under the 2.4 police officers per 1,000 residents recommended by the FBI. In 2012, a study conducted at the University of California-Berkeley determined that San Bernardino was the most under-policed large city in the state.
WHAT WORKS IN OTHER CITIES?
Operation Ceasefire is a policing program that focuses on preventing youth gun violence. Based on the work of criminologist David M. Kennedy, the program was first conducted in Boston in 1996. In California, Operation Ceasefire has been implemented in Richmond, Salinas, Stockton, Oakland, and Los Angeles. In San Bernardino, the Inland Congregations United for Change (ICUC), a coalition of local religious groups, has been using prayer, persuasion, and a monthly march and vigil from St. Bernardine Catholic Church to San Bernardino City Hall since 2014 to persuade the city to adopt Operation Ceasefire and do more to stop the violence.
However, earlier this year, the city was denied a state grant for funding Operation Ceasefire. “We clearly have the most significant crime spike of any place in the state, and all that money went elsewhere,” said Chief Burguan. Now San Bernardino is seeking alternative government or private funding for Operation Ceasefire. According to City Manager Mark Scott, Operation Ceasefire would cost about $500,000 to implement and conduct in San Bernardino. The city has agreed to spend up to $175,000 on the program.
Inland Congregations United for Change organizer Sergio Luna told the San Bernardino Sun: “Our agenda is still the same: We need to have our local elected officials, our Police Department, working with the faith community like ICUC to look into how to best approach this issue. Right now,” Luna added, “our goal is to bring awareness of what model cities in California – Richmond and Oakland – have done to reduce gang violence.”
WHAT IS ASSEMBLY BILL 109?
San Bernardino Councilman Fred Shorett said the cause of rising crime is “a breakdown of the family, and I don’t know how a legislator can fix that.” Shorett also cited Proposition 47 and Assembly Bill 109 for making the crime wave worse. Assembly Bill 109 “realigns” the responsibility for supervising offenders convicted of particular felony charges from the state level to the local level, and it makes enormous changes in California law, amending over 500 statutes.
It’s probably premature to assign the reasons for San Bernardino’s violent crime wave to any single cause. After all, from the researcher’s viewpoint, an increase in reported crime proves only that more people are calling the police. Still, in April, San Bernardino Councilman Henry Nickel said that he was tired of city officials explaining the problems they face – state laws and fewer police officers, for example – rather than coming up with a plan that works to reduce the crime rate.
Whenever there’s a sudden and highly-publicized crime wave, there’s pressure on the police to make arrests and pressure on prosecutors to win convictions. Proposition 47 has reduced some of the penalties for some of the crimes in the state, but anyone arrested and charged with a felony or a misdemeanor in San Bernardino – or anywhere else in southern California – will still require the sound legal advice of an experienced San Bernardino criminal defense attorney. Sometimes innocent people get swept up in the frenzy to get tough on crime. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen in San Bernardino.