Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2007 | The total number of gang-related crimes committed in San Diego jumped by 23 percent in the first 10 months of 2007 compared to the year before. The increase was led by an 85 percent spike in homicides and a 50 percent increase in attempted homicides.

Gang-related assaults, robberies and auto thefts all saw significant increases over that time, according to San Diego Police Department statistics. The only gang crime that didn’t increase from 2006 was drive-by shootings.

Capt. Mary Cornicelli, commanding officer of the SDPD gang unit, said the increase in gang-related crimes can’t be attributed to any one factor. She also stressed that, given the relatively low numbers involved, percentage increases can be misleading.

“When the numbers are small, those chunks of percentage increases can seem rather overwhelming,” Cornicelli said.

The department’s 50 percent increase in gang-related attempted murders can be attributed to a jump from 10 to 15 cases. Likewise, the city’s 10 percent drop in drive-by shootings was attributable to two fewer drive-bys this year, and the relatively low numbers involved means the increase could be a statistical blip or part of the natural ebb and flow of gang crime.

But when the city’s gang crimes are taken as a whole, the 25 percent increase is significant, said Pastor Harry Cooper, chairman of the city’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention, a body set up in 2006 to advise the city on gangs and gang crime.

The number of gang-related assaults with a deadly weapon in the first 10 months of 2007 was up 14 percent from 2006 (from 194 to 222). Gang-related robberies increased 16 percent from 77 to 89 and auto thefts increased 18 percent from 49 to 58 from between January and October 2007. And the number of “other” crimes determined to be gang related was up 32 percent.

Cooper said the spike in crime is a concern. He said the increase in gang crimes is due to a number of different factors and that social and economic shifts can affect the amount of gang crimes committed as much as changes in policing methods and staffing.

“The police would never be able to arrest themselves out of this problem,” Cooper said. “You can never make enough arrests to stop there being gangs.”

The San Diego Police Department’s gang unit, like many of the department’s major crime units, has been squeezed in recent years by police officer attrition. Present and former detectives at the gang unit said the team has lost several detectives and sergeants to other local law enforcement agencies and that it is currently working at less-than-optimal levels.

But Cornicelli, who has led the unit since 2005, said her team’s staffing has remained constant in that time. Though the unit has vacancies, she said, the number of officers she has is not a serious factor in her team’s ability to police the city’s gangs.

“When you look at these numbers, you would think ‘Wow, if we had more gang cops, we’d be able to do a lot more,’” Cornicelli said. “I don’t necessarily agree with that, I think we’re working smarter and we’re relying a lot more on intelligence. We’re being a lot more pro-active.”

Dana Greisen, chief of the San Diego County Gang Prosecution Unit at the District Attorney’s Office, said his office has been handed more cases this year than in 2006. He said the October wildfires may have had an effect on the number of gang crimes committed.

While most San Diego law enforcement officials were tied up with efforts related to the fires, crime in the city hit extreme levels in October, Greisen said. Gang crimes in particular are susceptible to decreases in police presence, he said, because gang crimes are often done indiscreetly to promote a gang or a gang member’s visibility.

That could go some way towards explaining October’s spike in gang-related homicides and other crimes, which had a marked effect on this year’s numbers.

“The less officers you have, the more gang crime you’re going to have,” Greison said.

“Had you not included October, I think we would have been pretty much on track — October was really bad,” he added.

Statistics from the District Attorney’s Office show that the trend in gang-related prosecutions mirrored the SDPD’s uptick in gang-related crimes. Local prosecutors handled far more gang-related attempted homicides, robberies and assaults in the first 10 months of 2007 than in the first 10 months of 2006, while the number of homicides remained level.

The District Attorney’s Office prosecuted 108 gang-related assaults in the first 10 months of 2007, up from 89 in the first 10 months of 2006. They prosecuted 67 gang-related robberies in 2007, compared to 44 in 2006, and 48 gang-related homicides in 2007, up from 28 in 2006.

Cooper said the city’s upward trend in gang crimes highlights the need for the Gang Commission’s work. The commission recently presented its long-term strategic plan to the City Council, and a new gang commission was proposed for North County last month.

“Some of this is a train that’s been on its track for a long time, and the city in its wisdom saw the possibility of the increase, and instead of just doing nothing, began the process of trying to systematically address it,” Cooper said.

But the 25 percent increase in crime could also fall well within the statistical oscillations of a relatively low-crime city, said David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

A 25 percent increase in gang crimes in San Diego, where there are typically less than 1,000 gang-related crimes a year, is very different to a similar increase in a more violent city, Kennedy said.

“If you’re talking about L.A. and you’re talking about a 100 percent increase in homicides, you’re hip-deep in bodies,” Kennedy said. “That’s not what you’re talking about there.”

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