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Homicides at parks in San Diego spark debate over public safety


The San Diego Police Officers Association last week called on city leaders to address what the union called a tragic statistic: 12 homicides at parks in the past 12 months.

In a statement, the union singled out Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe, who chairs the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods committee, criticizing her in part for wanting to divert funds from the San Diego Police Department.

Montgomery Steppe responded with a statement and a news conference, saying the violence is the result of a pattern of underinvestment in neighborhoods south of Interstate 8, many of which are primarily communities of color. To address the violence, Montgomery Steppe said, the city must invest in programs that meet the economic and social needs of residents, especially in underserved communities.

The dialogue was the latest example of the ongoing debate about how the city should handle public safety at a time when San Diego faces an increase in violent crime, like other cities nationwide. In San Diego violent crime rose from 3.71 per 1,000 residents in 2019 and 2020 to 4.16 in 2021. Still, San Diego remains one of the safest large cities in the nation.

Police union leaders say the department is understaffed and point to that as a reason for the increase in crime. Some San Diego leaders and residents say the city needs to invest in programs that target the root causes of crime and violence, such as poverty.

The police union called attention to the park homicides after the killing of a 31-year-old man in Teralta Park in City Heights on April 30. The union compared the 12 homicides in the past 12 months with two park homicides in 2019.

The Union-Tribune analyzed police data and news releases from the department, and confirmed that there appear to have been 12 homicides at parks around the city over the past 12 months but counted three in 2019. It was unclear why there was a discrepancy between the Union-Tribune’s tally for 2019 and the police union’s.

Of the dozen homicides in the past 12 months, three occurred in the first four months of 2022. Most of the homicides — nine — happened last year between May 9 and Nov. 25. And most of the 12 homicides occurred in neighborhoods located south of I-8, including City Heights, Emerald Hills and Grant Hill.

Overall there were 11 homicides at parks around the city last year, an increase from four in 2020, three in 2019 and two in 2018. The tally for 2021 includes three cases in which police said the homicides occurred adjacent to a park. Citywide, police logged 57 homicides last year, up from 56 in 2020, 50 in 2019 and 35 in 2018.

The police union said the homicides at parks in the past 12 months “should give pause to all city residents and visitors about the safety of our most valuable public spaces.” The union blamed the violence on slow response times and the loss of more than 190 officers who have left the department since July, the start of the current fiscal year.

The union then turned its attention to Montgomery Stepp, who has expressed interest in wanting to divert funds from the Police Department and has considered a policy package that would “curtail police powers” a top priority, the union said, referring to a proposal that would limit certain kinds of traffic stops, notably stops for equipment violations and stops in which officers use a minor violation as a pretext to investigate other crimes.

Last July, the City Attorney’s Office said the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods committee asked for a review of the proposed Preventing Over-policing Through Equitable Community Treatment ordinance, known as PrOTECT, which was crafted by a coalition of community groups that advocate for police reform. The City Council has not yet formally discussed the ordinance.

“(Montgomery Steppe) has not, to this point, proposed any sort of solution to address rising crime, nor violence in our parks specifically, let alone making it a priority of her committee,” the union said in a statement.

In response, Montgomery Steppe said the police union’s statement displayed ignorance about underinvestment in communities south of I-8 and its impacts on public safety.

“Inequality perpetuates violence. Poverty perpetuates violence. Disinvestment perpetuates violence,” she said in a statement. “There is a pattern of disregard for communities South of the 8, which has undoubtedly contributed to the cycle of violence in our communities.

“Part of reimagining policing and public safety is shaping policy from a holistic approach, which must initiate reform that includes economic and social justice components. This is done by funding more community programs that activate spaces and enforces crime prevention by environmental design,” said Montgomery Steppe, who has called for removing graffiti and adding street lights as part of that strategy.

In the past she has favored diverting some police funds toward initiatives such as anti-gang violence programs, street lights in low-income areas and efforts that take away certain tasks from the hands of police officers, such as calls related to homelessness.

Spending on policing has been a point of increased scrutiny in recent years, in large part because of calls for police reform after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in 2020.

Last week, the San Diego Association of Governments, known as SANDAG, released a report exploring how much money local jurisdictions spend on police departments and other public safety programs.

According to the report, the San Diego Police Department spent more than $533 million during fiscal year 2021, which amounted to about 3 percent less than fiscal year 2020 and about 14 percent more than fiscal year 2017.

About 34 percent of the city of San Diego’s budget goes to law enforcement.

The report also examined how many budgeted sworn officer positions each department had per 1,000 residents. In fiscal year 2021, the San Diego Police Department had 1.42 sworn positions per 1,000 residents. That’s slightly lower than the 1.46 sworn positions per 1,000 residents in fiscal year 2017, and significantly lower than the national average of 2.4 per 1,000 residents.

As of Monday, the San Diego Police Department had lost 197 officers since July, or about 18 officers a month, compared with 13 a month in the previous three fiscal years, according to police data. The union has blamed the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, low pay compared to other agencies and low morale within its ranks because of calls for police reform.

Staff writer Lyndsay Winkley contributed to this report.

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