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Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006 | The home-invasion robbery and sexual assaults of two college students in Mission Beach earlier this month seemed to be an unusually bold crime in a neighborhood known more for its surf breaks and tourist amusements than dark alleys.

The incident has focused a harsh spotlight on crime in the beach community and roused neighbors’ concerns, drawing hundreds to related community meetings.

But crime isn’t an unfamiliar part of life in Mission Beach.

A review of city crime statistics shows that since 2001, the average crime rates in Mission Beach for both violent and property crimes are about double those of nearby Pacific Beach and Ocean Beach – and nearly triple those citywide.

In 2005, violent crimes – murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault – in Mission Beach reached 14.56 per 1,000 residents, compared to 6.56 in Pacific Beach, 7.36 in Ocean Beach and 5.06 citywide. Property crimes – burglary, theft and auto theft – which account for the majority of crime in all communities, totaled 101.38 per 1,000 residents in Mission Beach, compared to 63.45 in Pacific Beach, 43.02 in Ocean Beach and 35.37 citywide.

“We have watched the crime rate go up and we are very concerned,” said Nancie Geller, president of the Mission Beach Town Council.

Police, city officials and residents don’t know exactly why Mission Beach has such high crime rates. They attribute the phenomenon to the daily influx of locals and tourists – both the target and cause of crime – who flock to the epicenter of beach life in San Diego. Additionally, they say the weather, a high population of college students who live in the area, alcohol and a police force strained by the city’s financial woes all contribute to the problem.

Looking for solutions, a crowd of about 150 people overflowed from the Mission Beach Woman’s Club during a neighborhood watch meeting Oct. 19.

A mix of older residents occupied the available seating. Representatives from karate studios and a local shooting range worked the crowd, encouraging attendees to learn to protect themselves. Outside, a gaggle of college students and stragglers gathered around the open doors, straining to hear the police officers and city officials who addressed the audience.

The turnout, about 100 people more than attended the new group’s September meeting, was prompted by an incident in which four men entered an apartment on San Fernando Place in the early morning hours of Oct. 15. Reportedly armed with several semiautomatic handguns, the attackers robbed the two couples staying there and sexually assaulted the two women, police say. Earlier that same evening, pedestrians along Mission Boulevard were robbed at gunpoint by a large group of men. Police believe the incidents were related.

The sexual assaults have generated concern among citizens, politicians, the police and the media. But before those incidents occurred, crime in the seaside community was already up nearly 25 percent compared to the first half of 2005, said Brian Ahearn, the lieutenant who oversees police activities in San Diego’s beach communities.

Ahearn said that rapes and assaults were down and overall violent crime decreased in Mission Beach by nearly 6 percent in the first half of 2006 compared to last year’s figures. But robberies have soared, increasing 125 percent, he said.

In general, property crime rates have increased more dramatically. In the first half of this year, commercial burglaries, thefts, vehicle thefts and car break-ins have all increased, causing total property crime in the neighborhood to increase by nearly 30 percent, Ahearn said.

Robert Chubinsky, a former president of the Town Council, said bar fights, petty burglaries and car and bicycle thefts have all been a part of life for the 16 years he’s called Mission Beach home. But Chubinsky said several attention-grabbing crimes in recent years have caused him to wonder whether “petty crooks hang with more serious crooks.”

Mission Beach has been home to other high-profile violent crime in the past. In the summer of 2003 a gang fight at Bonita Cove left one man dead. A year earlier a 22-year-old college student was shot and killed after his bicycle was stolen and a Swedish tourist was robbed and shot in a public restroom. In 1995 two bystanders were wounded during a gang shootout and two men were stabbed to death during a gang confrontation in 1991.

While police officials stress they take all crime seriously, those who analyze crime statistics say there’s no empirical proof whether an increase in property crime causes increases in violent crime.

Sandy Keaton, a senior research analyst at the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning group, said changes in property and violent crime rates countywide have coincided at times over the past 25 years, but not enough to draw a correlation between the two.

Ultimately, Keaton said some criminals are simply willing to commit violent crimes while others aren’t.

“It’s one thing to steal somebody’s bike and it’s another thing to go up to somebody who’s riding on a bike and assault them and steal their bike,” Keaton said.

Theories about why crime increases or decreases vary greatly and hinge on such factors as changes in demographics, economics and criminal penalties as well as the success of crime prevention and intervention efforts, Keaton said.

It doesn’t help any that crime statistics are notoriously open to interpretation and manipulation.

At a press conference last Friday, Mayor Jerry Sanders downplayed Mission Beach’s troubles. He announced the arrest of four suspects in the sexual assault case and, citing numbers from the first three-quarters of 2006 that have yet to be made public, said violent crime in Mission Beach has dropped an “astounding” 22.5 percent compared to 2005.

Bill Bradshaw has tracked crime reports in Mission Beach for the past four years and takes issue with the mayor’s numbers.

A member of the Town Council and a cofounder of the Mission Beach neighborhood watch program, Bradshaw said the mayor’s figures gloss over an increase in sexual assaults, up from 10 to 11, and robberies, up from 13 to 27, during the same period. He said they also ignore the rising property crime.

“It’s very difficult to get your arms around just how bad it is but let me tell you that this little community is one of the very worst by any measure,” Bradshaw said. “This is definitely a banner year for robberies.”

The problem’s causes are as diverse as they are numerous.

Mission Beach attracts a large crowd of visitors from every part of city, county and country, as well as college students who all tend to be more vulnerable to crimes of opportunity, said Boyd Long, captain of the police department’s Northern Division, which includes the beach communities.

“I think our criminal population knows that,” he said.

Geller, the Town Council president, said college students who live in the southern portion of the community have become easy prey.

“They have a very cavalier attitude that everybody who comes to the beach is cool and easygoing,” Geller said. “I just think they are easy victims because they just don’t think it’s going to happen to them.”

An especially warm summer brought larger crowds to the beach and continued warm weather has prolonged the beach season, Long said. As a result, he expects to see a corresponding increase in crime.

Part of what draws those crowds is the ability to drink alcohol on the sand and abundance of bars and nightlife in the area, two subjects that have long fueled controversy in the beach communities. While Long said alcohol certainly contributes to some problems in Mission Beach, he’s not able to attribute it to the rise in crime.

Later this month, a special task force formed by City Councilman Kevin Faulconer is scheduled to begin considering the role that alcohol plays in the beach communities, including its impact on crime rates.

In the meantime, the city’s pension crisis and nationwide recruitment trends have placed a strain on police department staffing. A lack of salary increases in the past two years has prompted police officers to leave the city in droves for better paying jobs with other departments. Officers from the baby boomer generation are starting to retire and others have been called to duty in Afghanistan or Iraq as members of military reserve units.

The department has had trouble finding qualified candidates to fill their positions, Long said, noting that the department currently employs 1,920 sworn officers and has 182 vacant positions.

Although his division has enough officers to respond to all calls for service, Long said the staffing shortage ultimately means less police on the streets of Mission Beach.

“I’d love to have a police officer on every corner,” Long said. “If we were at full strength at the Police Department I’d feel a little more comfortable.”

The department’s staffing problem hasn’t gone unnoticed by the residents of Mission Beach.

“The reality is we know they are understaffed,” Geller said. “We do not have the police to adequately protect us.”

Faulconer credits the police for their efforts to maintain order in Mission Beach but said something will have to change.

“At some level there’s just no substitute for having more of them out there,” he said. “We are going to have to do something as a city.”

Faulconer said he’s currently working to add lighting to areas throughout Mission Beach and would like to install security cameras in areas around Belmont Park. He also said the neighborhood watch will make efforts to involve college students who live in the community, something it hasn’t done in the past.

While residents welcome those improvements, some are still wary.

“Would I rather walk through Barrio Logan in the middle of the night?” asked Bradshaw. “I don’t know. I know I’m not very comfortable walking down Mission Boulevard.”

Please contact Daniel Strumpf directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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