Bad neighbors and quick burglars in City Heights

Anything else missing?

City Heights

“Hurry up and get your work done, so I can clean up this mess,” said Anne, a nineteen-year-old journalist in East San Diego.

“Well excuse me!” replied the policeman who had just walked into her cottage. Officer Ed Rosenbloom, at twenty-four, was young enough to say “excuse me” with a Steve Martin imitation, but then his tone turned sarcastic. “I didn’t realize you were rushed.”

Since arriving on his beat that afternoon in late July, Rosenbloom had gone from one burglary call to another. It was turning into another day of paperwork; and though he'd been at it only three hours, he’d already had enough. He stepped to the bedroom where the burglar had entered. ‘ ‘I don‘t know how he got that window to stay up,” said Anne from the living room. “I could never make it do that.”

A jumble of clothes and papers lay on the bed, which Rosenbloom glanced at before turning to the window with its smear of handprints on the sill. The burglary was a classic for this East San Diego neighborhood, City Heights. Someone had come up the alley in back, jumped the round-top board fence, opened the bedroom window at the back of the cottage, and plundered through purses, drawers, the jewelry box, and the medicine cabinet while Anne had been gone for just an hour. She’d called the police and had waited about forty minutes, not touching anything, expecting, as everyone does, that the officer would take fingerprints, when all he usually does, or can do, really, is sit at the kitchen table and fill out a blue Crime/Incident Report. For the record.

Rosenbloom asked her name, birthdate. Social Security number, the duration of her stay in the county, and a list of what had been stolen. She said it was only $10 and the value of the unexciting pills that the burglar had thrown into the toilet; but the real theft was revealed during the next few days, when the house was back in order and she started missing things: her cigarette papers, rolling machine, four pipes, two hemostats, a bong, a little wooden canister, and a three-sided mirror for cosmetics.

‘”You don’t look like a pig, ” she said to me while we were all in the kitchen. “What do you do?”

"Pardon me?” said Rosenbloom, nodding, open-mouthed. “Are you calling me a pig?”

“Well,” she said. She looked at her cigarette.

I introduced myself and then Rosenbloom said. “Let’s get on with this thing. Is that okay? Am I interrupting?”

“Bitch,” he said later in the car. “Can you believe that? She orders me to get my work done, then she calls me a pig. Right to my face. Hey, that makes me feel great. Know what? — that makes me feel like writing a great report. What have we been doing all afternoon? Writing reports. Ten to one that’s all we do today.”

Officer Rosenbloom and burglary victim

Officer Rosenbloom and burglary victim

Riding in the Dodge Aspen patrol car (riding shotgun, actually, with my knee against the Remington twelve-gauge) reminded me of driving a Yellow Cab on a Navy payday. Radio calls every minute. Nuzzling that pear microphone; holding names and addresses in mind while hanging up the mike and writing them on a clipboard wedged between the seats. For seven hours and forty-five minutes without a break, we answered calls in Normal Heights, City Heights, and North Park, spending, I’d say, less than a quarter of our time in Rosenbloom’s beat, which straddles University Avenue east of Interstate 805. Calls from adjacent beats kept drawing Rosenbloom off his home territory. Responding once to a call in North Park, we swooped onto Highway 15 south from Fortieth Street (touching eighty-six miles an hour, which felt terrific; I hadn’t gone that fast since gas was twenty-seven cents a gallon); and when I asked where we were going, exactly, Rosenbloom tipped his head toward me and said, “Oh, a street just over that hill right there. ” To my right was the high embankment above 1-805. I remember thinking, “This is what it means to be a suburban cop in California; driving away from one’s destination on a freeway, to get around to a second freeway, then finally returning to surface streets. It’s faster and more convenient than driving over a bridge and through another suburb. ”

Rosenbloom’s beat, which covers City Heights (roughly bounded by 1-805 to the west. University Avenue on the north, Fairmount Avenue to the east, and south to Quince Street) and the southern part of Normal Heights, led all of San Diego in the number of residential burglaries in June, with fifty-eight. (June’s figures are the most recent ones available.) The beats on either side, covering part of East San Diego and North Park, were close behind with fifty-four and forty-seven burglaries, compared to twenty-eight in Logan Heights, and fifty-eight in the three beats that comprise the rest of Southeast San Diego. Five years ago in June, Rosenbloom’s beat had only twenty burglaries, one-third the current number. It may be that more burglaries are being reported these days, if victims have learned that the sooner they report a burglary, the better are their chances of recovering their goods. (In any case, the chances are never very good. Of 20,000 burglaries reported last year, the police department caught the thief or returned the goods in only 2800 cases.) Rosenbloom said more burglaries occur on his beat because “all the crime from Southeast is just moving up the hill. ” I’d say instead that if I were going to rob any house in the city. I’d look around Rosenbloom’s area, not only because of the physical layout of many houses, which is great for burglaries, but because of the way residents treat one another, which is great for burglaries, too.

City Heights is the quintessence of old subdivisions in Southern California: Mira Mesa with a beard and cane. Beginning at the edge of grassy canyons, many of the streets soon turn into wide, shadeless runways and signless intersections where you yield to traffic on the right or die. The place has a scratchy, frontier look about it — like parts of Bakersfield and Fresno — with one-room stucco churches, and a scarcity of trees, and dust blowing out of a side street where a truck has just pulled in. The City Heights Land and Water Company, which developed the neighborhood in the early 1920s, about the time that East San Diego annexed itself to the rest of the city, saved money by making the blocks unusually long. The company simply did not build some cross streets. There was supposed to be a road dividing the properties at 3341 Forty-first Street and 3405, but instead these addresses are next door to each other, resulting in a residential block with the length and charm of a freight train. The lots were drawn deep and narrow to make the most of abundant street frontage, which in turn gave rise to building a house on the front of a lot, and another house in back — the back house served by a dirt alley that doubles, frequently now, as a driveway for burglars who can load and leave unseen.

“There’s been a burglary across the street,” Rosenbloom might say to a neighbor, as he looked for some clue to report. “Did you see anything?”

“Naw.”

“Do you know the family across the street?”

“Nope.”

“How about your next-door neighbors — do they know them?”

“Probably not.”

“All right,” says Rosenbloom, readying his pen. “Your name, please?”

“Why?”

“Spell that,” Rosenbloom says. “That was a joke. Ah, I need your name for this report to make the detectives happy.”

“Well. . . all right. Is this going to end up with the F.B.I.?”

And so it went. Writing four burglary reports, Rosenbloom came up with nothing, not an instance in which a neighbor saw something to help identify the burglar or recover the stolen property. Quite apart from the anonymity that long, straight blocks engender, and everyone’s natural desire for privacy, and the sour distrust some people feel for the police, there’s the near hopelessness of solving a burglary without a witness. Fingerprints don’t do any good if they aren’t supported by the burglar’s description, any more than you can find a book in a library without knowing the subject, title, or author (“Well,” you explain to the librarian, “it had a blue cover”). It is likely that all four of Rosenbloom’s reports — once they’d been checked by his sergeant and logged in the research and analysis department and copied three times and sent to the office of crimes against property, then distributed to the section handling burglaries in City Heights — concluded their administrative lives in limbo; Room 128 at headquarters, the No Report Contact desk. It is the final stop for reports that aren’t worth following up, and there they lie, comatose, until more information revives them.

“You’ll be getting a card in the mail,” said Rosenbloom to a victim on Thirty-seventh Street, a woman in her forties who lives alone and who’d been weeping behind her Yves St. Laurent glasses. She had been burglarized before and had installed the heavy, expensive locks that the police department recommends — the kind one needs a key to open from the inside of the door as well as from the outside. These undoubtedly saved her television from being stolen again (since the burglar couldn’t open a door from the inside to carry the TV out). But she hadn't learned that it’s the more secluded part of the house — not the front door but the window of the kitchen door — that needs a sturdy lock. And she still can’t count on her next-door neighbor, who is home all day, to watch for something amiss — like a stranger coming down the drive with her Fisher AM-FM tuner.

Alley

Alley

Eight calls for burglary reports came over the radio that Friday for Rosenbloom, who has a physical dislike for handling paper — he says it makes his hands feel dirty — and once during the shift, just after leaving Cinnamon’s house, he felt compelled to stop at the nearby 7-Eleven store to wash his hands. For this he gave up his job as assistant golf professional at the Navajo Canyon Country Club near Lake Murray. (His golfing handicap is one or two, he said.) “I decided not to go for the pro tour, because I didn’t have the dedication and I didn’t want to spend the time. That’s all it really takes — dedication and time.” He’s spent most of his life in San Carlos, though his childhood years were in Southeast San Diego on Parrot Street. He now approaches the end of his two-year probationary period with the police department and considers himself an “active-type officer,” meaning he is constantly looking for reasons to stop other people. That Friday he wrote two boys a warning citation because one of them was riding the other on the handlebars of his bike; he wrote a sailor a ticket for parking in an alley, and ticketed a man who’d paid the yearly registration fee for his car but hadn’t gotten around to putting the sticker on his license plate. One of his favorite traffic citations, Rosenbloom said, is for riding a skateboard in the street.

But Rosenbloom isn’t totally and tirelessly observant. He daydreams a little (which I found charming). Once, after stopping outside an apartment building in Normal Heights to check out a burglary, we got out of the car, walked across the street, and came within speaking distance of a man who was trimming the hedges (and who nearly dropped his shears when he saw us stalking toward him) when Rosenbloom realized that he’d stopped on the wrong block altogether. He made some noise of exasperation and called himself an idiot, then snapped once again into cop-like behavior, appearing never to have been mistaken, and unable to be fooled.

Jabu Ntoro

Jabu Ntoro

“Look at those punks,” he said a while later as we were passing a house in North Park with some teen-agers on its stoop — white boys about fifteen years old, the sort of juveniles most likely to be arrested for burglary, according to last year’s figures. “I could solve half the burglaries in this neighborhood if I ran those guys in,” he continued, looking down a side street. “Hey, I got a great attitude, don't I? Comes with experience.”

We were on our way to Grim Street, where two children had been left alone all day by their mother, when turning around in the middle of a block (we were slightly lost again), Rosenbloom spied some teenagers sitting behind a garage in an alley. He swung the car around and bore into the narrow drive with enough speed to press us in our seats, and in a few seconds stopped in front of the kids, three boys and a girl, who looked about high school age. Rosenbloom jumped out of the car and said, “Come back here!” to the boy who was pedaling off on his motocross bicycle, stone-faced. Then he walked up to the remaining three, holding his arms away from his sides as though they were wet. One by one he made them stand to be searched. This yielded two packs of cigarettes, a clay pipe, and a baggie with a couple joints worth of pot left in it. (There was also a Beatles album on which the kids had been cleaning out the seeds from their dope.) The two boys hooked their thumbs in their pockets and hardly looked at each other, or at Rosenbloom; only the girl glared straight at the cop when he talked to her. He led them to a trash barrel on the other side of the alley and watched while they crumpled their cigarettes; and he said it would be a good idea for somebody to get rid of the pipe, which one of the boys, the smaller one, pulverized with a baseball bat that happened to be lying near the garage. Then Rosenbloom let two of them go and opened the back door of the car for the one who’d been holding the baggie. He was a tall blond kid, crane-limbed, with short hair, who looked just then as if he were crawling into the barrel of a cannon. Rosenbloom found the right form and attached it to his clipboard. “Okay, you’re about to be arrested for possession of marijuana. ”

“No I haven’t,” the boy said.

“Wait,” said Rosenbloom, raising his face to the rearview mirror. “I’m telling you you’re going to be arrested.”

“Oh. I thought you were asking if I’d ever been. ...”

“No,” said Rosenbloom.

Officer filing a report

Officer filing a report

Two girls walked by the car a minute later. One of them was blond and was wearing fresh blue jeans. She carried a new album from Tower Records. Without breaking stride, she ducked down a little to look at the boy in the back, and still not stopping, said, “What are you doing in there?” then turned a delicate smile to her girlfriend and kept on going.

“That your sister?” said Rosenbloom.

“Yeah.”

“Does she smoke, too?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t? Why not?”

“I never hang around with her.”

Rosenbloom was looking at his form, writing. Then he said, “Is she stupid?”

“What?”

“I said, ‘Is she stupid?’”

The boy didn’t answer for a minute.

“No.”

“Okay,” said Rosenbloom lightly. Then he read the boy his right to remain silent (waived), arrested him, and drove him home to an apple-red house around the comer, fifty yards away. Since the boy’s mother was home, Rosenbloom left him in her custody, explaining in his authoritative voice just what the boy had done. But he stammered once or twice, as if he were suddenly faced with a greater authority. She thanked him; he thanked her and told her to have a nice day. And we left right away for a burglary report, and then another, which took up most of our time until ten o’clock that night.

On another evening in July, at the hour of Mark & Mindy, a dozen residents of City Heights were crowded into a neighbor’s living room to talk about preventing burglaries. This meeting was the sixteenth that had taken place in the neighborhood, under the sponsorship of Project CASA, a $78,000 program that came into being last year when the Regional Employment and Training Consortium announced it needed ways to employ the chronically jobless. The project is supposed to establish ten teams of neighbors to watch after one another’s home. It isn’t going well: attendance at many meetings has been sparse, “but when you’ve been in this business for a while, you learn to judge success in terms of moving a community toward something — not necessarily in terms of getting there — because what you’re really working for is to bring the community together,” said Kevin Sweeney, who oversees some similar projects in East San Diego. “The whole idea of community watch,” said CASA employee Jabu Ntoro (pronounced JAY-bu Ne-TOR-oh), “is to realize that the best protection for our neighborhood is each other and not necessarily the police department.”

Nonetheless, the police are invited to every meeting to talk about their work and to get a feeling for the people they’re sworn to protect. A sign-in sheet was being passed around, carrying names like Hayes, Washington, Pelayo, Rodriguez, and Bukoski. A man named Ralph was one of the last to arrive. He looked about fifty, with faintly gray hair below his white roadster cap; and when he smiled, which was often, a crescent scar stood out from the wrinkles on his cheek. Seating himself carefully in a kitchen chair between me and Ntoro, he said, ‘Tell me somethin’ nice.”

And Ntoro replied, “Hey, whatever.”

“Then right on.”

The meeting got underway when two police officers arrived. They stood in the doorway, refusing to take seats (“I sit too much as it is, ” said one of them), and they began by explaining why it sometimes takes hours or even days for the police to come by someone’s house to write a burglary report. They said a lot of other work takes priority. A shooting or an auto accident is first in line, a burglary or a robbery in progress is second, a family dispute is third, and reports are last. Any questions, they asked?

“I got a question,” said Ralph, looking at officer Cindy Stoddard. “Do you take those beautiful eyes of yours after your mother?”

Officer Stoddard leaned forward and said, “Pardon me?”

“I said, ‘Do you take those eyes of yours after your mother?’ ”

“Here’s another thing,” said officer Bill Leffler, with a loud voice and a smile. “We’re always telling you people to get hold of an electric pencil and write your driver’s license number on your valuables. Why? Couple of months ago I pulled a guy over on a violation and something didn't look right. So I find some stereo equipment in his trunk. Guess what? His driver’s license doesn’t match the number that’s written on the stereo. He tells me the stuff belongs to his uncle, and I say, ‘Fine.’ I call the number in to the dispatcher — bingo — ten seconds later I got an address for the stereo equipment. I send a unit by. He finds nobody home — but the screen on the back window is cut. We already got the burglar and the property before the gal comes back home from work. All because she took the trouble to write her number on the stereo. And you can borrow an electric pencil from the police department or just about anywhere.”

“And please don’t write down your Social Security number,” Stoddard put in.

“No way,” said Ralph.

“Because for some reason the Social Security people won’t give us any information when we call.”

“No, ma’am.”

“All right, now. I have a question,” said Ntoro, a good-looking young man in his jogging suit, white loafers, and a thick gold choker. “Can you give us some positive reinforcement as to the importance of holding community workshops such as this, which are designed to stimulate active community participation?”

The officers looked at each other. Then Stoddard said, “Sure. We think meetings like this are super. But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that all you really need is simple, everyday neighborliness. All the meetings in the world don’t do any good if you see a strange person parked in front of your neighbor’s house in the middle of the day and you don’t write down the license number or at least keep an eye out. ”

“I dig it,” Ntoro said. “But let me explain something. I represent Project CASA, which is a community-based crime-prevention organization that means ‘house’ in Spanish.”

The officers were nodding briskly.

“And the focus of this meeting tonight is to concentrate on motivating participation in the organization.”

“Okay,” said Stoddard. “Great.”

“So that’s why I’m telling you — so that you will be informed of our program.”

“We were just told to show up,” Stoddard said.

“And I still don’t know where you got them beautiful eyes,” broke in Ralph.

“Ralph done fell in love,” said Ntoro, getting a couple of laughs. Then he said, “Hey, cool it, Ralph. You only allowed one comment per thousand words.”

I thought Ntoro handled that comment rather well, though it didn’t make Ralph keep quiet. (Stoddard finally said with gaiety that she has her mother’s eyes.) Neither did Ralph keep quiet when Carmen Rios, the Spanish-language employee at Project CASA, told him to shut up. (Ralph is bilingual.) But it didn’t matter. The officers were called away, leaving Project CASA with troubles in addition to dealing with Ralph. The many meetings had yielded only eight block captains so far, out of eighteen that Ntoro and his two coworkers had hoped for. These active volunteers may well turn up by the end of September, when the project ends; but last month, the teamwork for helping one’s neighbor had still not come together in City Heights.

“Allow me to use your imagination for a minute,” said Ntoro, taking over the meeting, trying to bring the small audience together. “Imagine here’s a crook. He’s walking down your street and he sees your garage door open. But what he sees, too, is that everybody is shut up behind their house; there’s nobody talking to each other. Maybe this woman she’s out walking her dog, but she’s not paying attention to nothing but her dog. You hear what I’m saying?”

“I do,” said Ralph.

“Okay. So this crook he walks into your garage and he takes whatever he wants to. I know what I’m saying, ’cause I used to steal. He works fast but he’s not worried. He knows that nothing’s going to happen.”

“I heard that,” said a formidable-looking woman across the room. “But I’ve got a question for you Jaw-boo or Jay-boo or whatever your name is.”

“It’s Jay-bu.”

“Whatever. I say that maybe some people don’t want to have other people looking after their house. Maybe I don’t want somebody looking at who’s parking in my driveway. ”

'"Who's going to park in your driveway?” said Ralph.

‘ ‘Okay, check it out, ” Ntoro said. ‘ ‘We have got to define neighbor. That’s the whole problem around here is that we have got out of touch with what a neighbor is. You hear? A neighbor is not somebody who goes checking out how many dates you got. ...”

“Oo-wee!” Ralph hollered.

“A neighbor is somebody who participates in the program that we ’re trying to set up here. That’s your neighbor.”

“I don’t know,” the woman said, shifting in her seat. “I see you’re getting into personalities in this block watch, and I just don’t know.”

“What’s that you don’t know, sister?” said Ralph.

“I just don’t know, “ she replied.

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