Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

A recent study by the San Diego Association of Governments revealed, as many news outlets were quick to report, that violent crime for the region spiked over the last year. The increase was largely attributed to gun-related aggravated assaults.

But the crime data reflects another truth: Despite the recent increase, San Diego remains one of the safest metros in the United States, with the rate of violent crime still far below its peak a few decades ago.

Interviews with experts and community organizers also suggest that, while the causes of crime are complex, the pandemic played a considerable role in the spike, as did an ongoing lack of trust in law enforcement.

SANDAG released the results of a larger study in April that took a 40-year view. It shows a significant decline in violent crime — from its peak of 9.76 reports per every 1,000 people in 1992 to 3.44 in 2020. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the San Diego region had a higher violent crime rate than the rest of the nation — methamphetamine distribution was cited as a possible factor — but those numbers eventually dropped below the United States at large.

The mid-year 2021 violent crime rate stood at 3.64 per 1,000 people.

A 40-year view of the violent crime rate reported to law enforcement across the San Diego region. / Courtesy of SANDAG

The total number of homicides spiked during the early months of the pandemic, both locally and nationally. The official numbers for the city of San Diego, released by the Federal Bureau of Investigations in September, showed a 12 percent increase between 2019 and 2020. The more recent SANDAG study puts the change between mid-year 2020 and mid-year 2021 at 20 percent.

By any metric, violent crime is up collectively, and the toll it takes is no doubt devastating. As San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit put it at a recent press conference, “Every time someone is killed in a community, not only is that victim’s family traumatized, but that community is traumatized.”

But the short-term increases are not necessarily part of a pronounced trend. Other similarly sized cities, like Phoenix and Philadelphia, have experienced even more substantial increases in recent years, some as high as 40 percent.

The SANDAG data also shows that the uptick was not uniform. Some parts of San Diego County saw an increase in the number of violent crimes reported to police in recent years, while others saw a drop. Some individual cities saw a spike from one year to the next, but a decrease over a longer period of time.

“If all one knew in a city was what left local TV news, one would think the city is awash in murder,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri in St. Louis who’s studied the issue for the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. “But the homicide rate in San Diego is quite low.”

The pandemic has instigated debates over the tradeoffs inherent in the public health response. Closing schools and businesses, intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, brought emotional and financial hardship. Similarly, community organizers attributed the increase in violent crime to another tradeoff. The pandemic limited opportunities for people to meet face-to-face and resolve their tensions.

Cornelius Bowser, a former gang member and the pastor/CEO of Shaphat Outreach, said he wished public agencies would release more neighborhood-to-neighborhood data because the violence is often restricted to certain neighborhoods that could be helped with prevention programs. More information would focus the work of intervention that he and others already do down to select blocks.

One study in the American Sociology Review in 2017 estimated that every 10 additional organizations focusing on crime and community life in a city with 100,000 residents leads to a 9 percent reduction in the homicide rate and 4 percent reduction in the property crime rate. Like so many other things, violence prevention has become more difficult because of the pandemic.

Crime stats are typically aggregated, so it’s not easy to figure out where exactly violent crime is rising unless one goes digging. The Union-Tribune did a couple years ago and found that the number of violent crimes had doubled — or more — in about 17 percent of all census block groups in the city, some of which were described as “previously peaceful” but adjacent to others that had historically struggled with violence.

The time-delay is also a challenge. The Federal Bureau of Investigation releases its annual crime reports nine months after the previous year ended. By then, cities and counties have passed their next fiscal year budgets. Sometimes entire campaigns are waged in favor of more “tough on crime” policies before all the information is even available, which puts voters at a disadvantage — left to make a decision based on little more than their own perceptions of the wider world.

A Pew Research Center study released last year shows that, even though crime rates have trended downward since the 1990s, Americans tend to believe the opposite. They believe crime is going up. Just not in their own communities, but in someone else’s.

Without better, more timely data, Bowser said, crime stats are easily spun to score political points — to give the impression that crime is spreading everywhere and to advocate for more task forces, which then leads to more stops, which makes community members who’ve done nothing wrong bitter.

“The response is always more policing,” Bowser said. He stressed that crime stats should be viewed as a single data point rather than the entire story.

The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice found a correlation between a city’s homicide rate and its poverty and unemployment rates.

“People are angry and when they get angry, they act out,” said Francine Maxwell, president of the NAACP branch in San Diego. “We are in a state of desperation.”

The regional violent crime rate in 2021 is on par with the violent crime rate in 2012, back when Bob Filner was running for San Diego mayor and the Chargers were still a local NFL team.

Maxwell said she isn’t any more or less afraid today than she was then. She said Black San Diegans are still suffering from “the same hopelessness, that nothing had improved, and their voices haven’t been heard.”

Dozens of people protest outside the San Diego Police Department headquarters in downtown after a Kentucky grand jury decided not to charge police officers for the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

A recent city audit showed that officials used $110.9 million worth of federal relief money — more than 40 percent of the total — on police payroll during the pandemic, which was allowed under federal guidelines to avoid the firing or furloughing of employees needed to assist with the public health emergency. Still, Maxwell disagreed with the way officials allocated that money and argued that the city needs to put more behind job training, small businesses and food banks, which are seeing a surge in demand.

“These lines are still long,” she said.

In addition to the CARES Act funds, state and federal governments offered cash-transfers to individuals to help keep the economy from collapsing, although it was by no means enough to lift people out of poverty for any meaningful amount of time.

Ames Grawert, senior counsel at the Brennan Center’s Justice Program in New York, told me that guns have always been the primary driver behind homicides, and sales have risen during the pandemic. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the newly, legally purchased firearms were involved in violent crimes. City officials have mostly focused their attention on ghost guns as the problem.

The same neighborhoods struggling with poverty are struggling with violent crime and that’s probably no accident, Grawert said. “Because violence is concentrated, the solutions are going to be concentrated.”

Some have also argued that the Black Lives Matter protests last year played a role in the rising gun violence and homicide rates by diverting officers away from their normal patrols. A paper produced recently by an economist at the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and his colleagues shows that after George Floyd’s murder, calls to the police plummeted as shootings spiked.

But as the Guardian also reported, across the nation homicide rates were higher during every month in 2020, including those that preceded the pandemic-related shutdowns and the civil unrest.

Rosenfeld, the criminologist, believes that the long-term lack of confidence in law enforcement is a factor, citing a relationship between trust and violence in disadvantaged communities. There’s even a term for it in sociology: legal cynicism.

“People are less willing to rely on the police and more willing to take matters into their own hands when disputes arise,” he said.

Jack Schaeffer, the president of the San Diego Police Officers’ Association, didn’t disagree. He acknowledged that the pandemic combined with a high unemployment rate and mistrust of law enforcement had heightened anxieties. And while he credited San Diego’s relatively low crime rates to the work of police personnel, he cautioned against any simple reading of the recent spike in violent crime.

“It’s hard to know what’s in people’s minds and hearts,” he said. “Everyone does things for different reasons. To try to lump it into one thing is problematic.”

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

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