By Joe Tash
San Diego County continues to enjoy historically low crime rates in 2010 in spite of an economic downturn that many experts feared would push crime rates higher.
In April, the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, which tracks crime statistics for San Diego County, published a report showing that the local crime rate hit 25-year lows for both violent and property crimes in 2009. Crime in San Diego County continued to drop for the first half of 2010, according to a SANDAG report released in October.
“Despite the concerns that first were sparked with the economic downturn… we’re actually seeing a couple of years of decreases (in crime) across the region and across the nation… which is very positive news,” said Sandy Keaton, a senior research analyst with SANDAG.
While the news is good for now, officials worry that law enforcement budget cuts by San Diego County and its 18 cities necessitated by decreased revenues during the recession will eventually erode the county’s gains in fighting crime.
For example, San Diego city officials are grappling with a $73 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Mayor Jerry Sanders has outlined potential spending cuts that include the elimination of 109 patrol officer positions in the police department, along with cuts to the Fire-Rescue Department, libraries and parks and recreation.
Keaton said it is difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for the decline in crime, but one factor is an increase in innovative approaches to fighting crime by police and community agencies, including investments in prevention and intervention programs, from providing services for juvenile offenders to targeting gang activity.
“The concern is that now that the money isn’t there, what will be the impact three or four or five years down the line. But right now it’s very positive,” Keaton said.
The decline in crime rates has been documented at the federal, state and local levels. FBI statistics show both violent and property crime decreased in the U.S. in 2009 from the year before, 5.3 percent and 5.5 percent respectively.
A similar trend was tracked in California, according to the state Department of Justice. Violent crime dropped 6.6 percent in 2009, while property crime dropped 10.1 percent. San Diego County showed a 2 percent drop in violent crime in 2009, and an 18 percent drop in property crime, over the previous year.
In general, law enforcement agencies track the incidence of four types of violent crime, including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault; and three types of property crime, including burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft.
Most San Diego County communities also have experienced decreased crime rates in 2009 and 2010, according to law enforcement officials.
“Certainly crime is down across the board citywide, and at Northwestern Division, we are a microcosm of that,” said San Diego Police acting Lt. Brian Goldberg, who works at the department’s Northwestern Division station in Carmel Valley.
Goldberg credited both the work of Northwestern Division officers and the assistance of community members — such as senior volunteers — in bringing down the crime rate in Carmel Valley this year. For example, he said, officers used stakeouts, surveillance and video cameras to catch thieves who were breaking into businesses in strip malls to steal cash and other valuables.
Officers have also targeted drug users, such as those addicted to the prescription painkiller Oxycontin, which he said helped drive down certain categories of crime.
Carmel Valley covers some 41 square miles of territory, and the department can only assign four or five patrol officers at any given time, said Goldberg. “That’s a lot of territory to cover. The only way we can get it done is working in a collaborative manner with the community,” he said.
Jeffrey Vandersip, a senior crime analyst with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, said crime decreased in Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe (including Fairbanks Ranch and several other unincorporated areas), but increased slightly in Solana Beach.
“We’re obviously pleased that in the Ranch and Del Mar, at least for this year, crime has gone down quite a bit. In Solana Beach, we wish the numbers were a bit better, but you are always going to have changes,” said Vandersip.
Increased sophistication in crime fighting techniques — such as data analysis — has helped law enforcement agencies keep criminals in check, Vandersip said.
“We have a lot more tools in our tool belt,” he said. “Now we know where crime happens and when it happens. Rather than target a whole community, we focus resources on those areas that have the problems.”
Within the Rancho Santa Fe Covenant, crime is also down, said Rancho Santa Fe Patrol Chief Matt Wellhouser. As of the beginning of December, 12 burglaries had been recorded, compared with 33 in 2009. Grand theft was down, and there were two robberies each in 2009 and so far in 2001.
“Burglaries in the village area have dropped drastically in the last couple years,” said Wellhouser, due most likely to increased patrols by his officers, and more vacancies in commercial buildings. Merchants have also increased security, “hardening their target,” he said.