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Most local public safety stories start with a police scanner. The scratchy voice of a dispatcher mentions a gunshot, blood or flames and news media are burning rubber to get there.

That was part of my job before I came to voiceofsandiego.org. Listen to a scanner, chase sirens and write a few paragraphs about what happened. Rinse and repeat daily.

Here we don’t even have a police scanner. My job is to explore crime trends, the broader context of a major event or the political angle of public safety. Rather than focus on the gritty details of a crime, I’m often asking, “What does this say about our community or our public safety net?”

This year, I asked a lot of police officers that question. An officer misconduct scandal rocked the San Diego Police Department, spurred public apology and highlighted flaws in internal oversight. Many of the department’s tools to monitor misconduct had been ignored, stretched or dismantled.

The misconduct scandal turned out to be my biggest story of the year, but it wasn’t the only theme I followed. Below, I’ve listed five must-read stories from my 2011 public safety coverage. Grab some hot chocolate or eggnog, curl up next to the fireplace and please let me know what you think afterwards. I’m still trying to figure out what topics to cover next year.

1. How a Bad Cop Evaded Detection

This story culminated nine months of reporting and four weeks of court testimony. It’s the most comprehensive narrative of the San Diego Police Department’s response to a bad cop, Anthony Arevalos. Long before police arrested Arevalos, the department missed numerous red flags and ignored warning signs of his criminal behavior.

After we published the story in partnership with San Diego Magazine, an El Cajon reader called me and said, “After every paragraph my mouth got wider and wider until you could’ve fit the whole state of California in it.” She said it was the first time she read VOSD.

2. San Diego Police’s New Identity

Two weeks before the misconduct scandal gained steam, I examined a decades-long shift in San Diego’s policing strategy. In short, a police officer today places greater focus on responding faster to dangerous situations than on preventing underlying causes.

That trend wouldn’t be a story in some cities, but in San Diego, proactive policing was part of the city’s heritage. It gained international acclaim in the 1990s and defined how other government services operate. Faced with budget cuts in recent years though, it’s become a tactic that police simply don’t have as much time to use.

3. After Two Big Defeats, Firefighters Union on Defense

It’s been a rough couple years for the city’s firefighters union. They led a failed campaign to increase taxes and were not exempted like police from a high-profile pension reform ballot initiative.

The union’s critics smelled blood and put them in an unusual position: defense. Coming up to a big local election year with the mayor, the City Council and big ballot measures on the line, how the union responds should be interesting to watch.

4. Murders’ Rise Extends Countywide

Murderers threw a wrench into the region’s crime trends this year. Law enforcement officials have long heralded a precipitous drop in violent and property crimes, but in 2011, the number of murders climbed across the county.

Though murder grew, it’s a little early to start freaking out. The trend might say more about an astonishing drop in 2010 than a new crime wave. The 75 murders reported in the county through October this year is a similar marker to the number of murders in 2008 and 2009.

5. Alcohol Crime Shifted Inland After Beach Ban

If there’s an annual award for ironic trends, this would be a contender. The same beach communities that opposed banning alcohol from San Diego’s beaches now have less alcohol-related crime while many of the same inland communities that supported the ban now have more.

I reached that conclusion in July after digging into election results and six years of police statistics. Though the number of alcohol-related crimes has remained steady, police have reported a clear shift in where those crimes happen. You can check out the shift in your neighborhood by clicking here.

Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He writes about public safety and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

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