Photo by Megan Wood

Violent crime is increasing in El Cajon at a significantly higher rate than other cities in San Diego County. Officials don’t completely understand why, but say they’re alarmed.

In the meantime, they have a couple theories involving the city’s homeless and immigrant communities.

Many of the most serious crimes in San Diego County have been falling since the mid-1990s. Earlier this month, though, the Union-Tribune analyzed 2018 crime data and found that while violent crime remains historically low, the figures are slowly increasing in certain neighborhoods.

As the newspaper noted, National City, Chula Vista and San Diego saw increases of 3 percent from the previous year — which is why El Cajon’s numbers are so startling.

Collectively, the number of homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults reported within the city increased 20 percent between 2017 and 2018, and more than 50 percent between 2014 and 2018, according to figures compiled by the FBI and released in a report last month by SANDAG.

[infogram id=”violent-crime-in-el-cajon-1h984wg0mlo82p3″ prefix=”zoX”]

The stats cannot be explained away as the result of a general population increase. El Cajon’s population grew 3 percent between 2014 and 2018 and actually dropped by 1 percent between 2017 and 2018.

“Honestly, we don’t know why, but we do have a few theories,” Mayor Bill Wells told Voice of San Diego.

He cited two: an uptick in aggravated assaults among the city’s homeless population and improved relations with the city’s immigrant and refugee groups, which means members of those communities might be more willing to report crimes to authorities than they were in the past.

Yet the mayor’s impressions are based on anecdotal evidence that he said he picked up from the police department. He and the City Council are still awaiting a more complete analysis from law enforcement officials, who are making changes to their computer systems to better track crimes in their own backyard.

There’s long been a tension in El Cajon between the political leadership and immigrant populations, particularly the Iraqi Christian community. Former Mayor Mark Lewis resigned in 2013 after making racist remarks suggesting that wealthy Chaldeans and other minorities were mooching off the government. Just last week, one city councilman complained about seeing “unsavory individuals,” including one “who looked like a gang member,” on the trolley.

To build trust in recent years, said Lt. Royal Bates, the police department has partnered with various community leaders and groups that can serve as a liaison. They craft public service messages for the radio, hold forums and classes, and translate fliers into multiple languages so people are less apprehensive about approaching authorities.

“For us to say it is one thing,” Bates said. “But to have that message coming from both sides drives it home.”

One of the people the police department relies on is Dilkhwaz Ahmed, the CEO of License to Freedom, which aids immigrant victims of sexual and domestic violence. A refugee from the Kurdish region of Iraq, Ahmed defended the mayor’s sense that violent crime isn’t rising so much as it’s being better reported these days.

Around 2015, Ahmed’s organization changed the way it interacted with immigrant victims of crimes by putting more resources into education and prevention efforts rather than just crisis intervention. The move was not without controversy, she said, because it was perceived as divisive — she was accused of turning families and friends against one another.

“Domestic violence is taboo in this community,” she said.

Still others in the Chaldean community told me that they found the mayor’s theorizing about the crime stats and the growing comfort level among immigrants self-serving and offensive — positive on the surface but negative when one considered the underlying assumption about who’d been committing offenses and not reporting them.

“The Chaldean community has been here for years and it’s one of the most law-abiding,” said Arkan Somo, a businessman. “We respect the law and law enforcement and that’s our background. Part of it is fear, part of it is respect.”

Religious leaders who provide various homeless services in East County also reacted to news of a 20 percent increase in El Cajon crime with disbelief. Two pastors who feed the homeless say the statistics don’t match the reality of what they see on the ground.

This, too, is a sore spot politically. A 2016 Grand Jury report chastised cities in East County for failing to provide the homeless with adequate resources, singling out El Cajon. The city manager responded at the time by saying the report was “entirely in error” and rigorously defended the existing network of homeless services. He argued there was a greater concentration of homeless services in El Cajon than in any other community within the region.

Eric Roundtree, pastor at the Newbreak Church, said he was shocked to hear of the rising violent crime rates and challenged the city’s theory that more aggravated assaults may be stemming from the homeless population, which he serves.

“I haven’t visibly seen it,” he said. “It hasn’t affected anyone in my congregation more than any other and more than what’s deemed normal.”

But he pointed to the region’s affordable housing crisis and its effect on homelessness. “When you push people to desperation, people do desperate things,” he said.

There is at least one potential bright spot in the FBI’s data: El Cajon police report that they’ve solved more violent crimes in recent years. In 2018, their clearance rate — 45 percent — was about equal to the rest of the county.

One of the major sticking points in the debate over what’s up with crime in El Cajon stems from the shifting definitions of crime. In 2015, the FBI revised its definition of rape to include male victims and other types of offenses. The numbers have fluctuated widely since then. There were 20 reported rapes in El Cajon in 2014, 48 in 2017 and 31 in 2018.

During the same time period, aggravated assaults rose by 70 percent, but police caution there’s more to the data than meets the eye.

Bates said the guidelines for reporting aggravated assaults was broadened within the last five years. He gave an example: an assault with a deadly weapon would not have been considered aggravated under the old guidelines if the victim had not been struck. Now it would be.

But those changes applied to all jurisdictions — and El Cajon’s numbers are surging faster than other cities in the county.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.