When two robbers with handguns ordered him to lie face down next to his pickup in Mission Beach, Paul Cullen refused.
"I figured if they were going to shoot me," he says about the holdup last summer, on August 23, at 11:15 p.m. in a carport off the alley behind his apartment, "I wanted to see them before they did it." And he feared they would be more likely to shoot him in the back than they would if he faced them. After they pulled his wallet from his pants pocket, one assailant, who had stepped out of the carport to keep watch down the alley, kept shouting to the other, "Just shoot him." But Cullen was able to slide along his truck to gain more distance and a better angle from his attacker in the darkness. Before the assailants ran away, however, he had already looked them in the eyes.
Two SDPD officers came in 15 minutes to take a report, which included the victim's description of the size and clothing of two young black men. But Cullen was disappointed that, as far as he knew, the police ever did any further investigation of the crime scene. "They could have easily gotten fingerprints," he says, "because all the attackers' marks were on the side of the truck, on the door, and on the mirror." Cullen said the officers did not seem interested in looking for the men, who had escaped separately onto Mission Bay Boulevard and Bayside Walk. "I told them," Cullen continues, "that they had people on the boardwalk right now with loaded guns. They didn't go search for them. They drove down the alley to the stop sign, took a left, and that's the last I saw of them."
Although a detective was assigned to his case, Cullen became frustrated that he could get little additional response from the police. After an initial conversation, the detective did not return phone calls he placed to her until she called to say he would be summoned to view a police lineup. But he heard nothing further about that. Finally, six weeks after his robbery, he learned that the detective would be retiring and that a new detective would take her place. That was two months after his robbery.
The phone call about a possible lineup intrigued Cullen, because it came only days after police arrested Darius Days and Calvin Pearce, both 18, on suspicion of murdering SDSU student Paul Mefford on El Carmel Point in Mission Bay earlier in the summer. At the time of his killing, Mefford had been trying to retrieve his bicycle from the bed of a departing pickup. The murder occurred not more than 200 yards from the site of Cullen's robbery and a little more than five weeks before it.
Two days before the robbery, on August 21, a Beach and Bay Press headline announced that police had reassured the Mission Bay Council "of safety at the beach." The department had assigned one additional five-officer "beach team" to patrol the area in the face of nervousness over the Mefford murder and other incidents. In the aftermath of his robbery, says Cullen, police told him that recent crimes were isolated incidents. He also heard from city councilmember Byron Wear's communications director, Peter Bryan, that "There is no gang activity at the beach."
But at 8:30 p.m. on the Friday after police arrested Days and Pearce, employees of the Mission Bay Yacht Club, at the tip of El Carmel Point, called police about several individuals tagging the walls of brick restrooms nearby. "This was the worst graffiti that I can recall, ever," says Buz Rahe, a resident of the area who organized a neighborhood letter, with 30 signatures on it, to Councilmember Wear.
Peter Bryan also told Cullen that incidents like his robbery are "just a part of living at the beach." But residents in the area of El Carmel Point don't buy it. "There's an attitude," observes Cindy Francisco, who lives on Bayside Walk, "that says, 'It's the beach; that's what you have to put up with.' And that is not true. Do they put up with that in La Jolla? I don't think so."
But Francisco is pessimistic; she believes that the SDPD is so understaffed that it can't keep up with the Mission Beach residents' many complaints of loud and rowdy behavior, especially late at night in the summer. After Mefford's murder on July 14, "We took five officers from Southeast San Diego," says Francisco. "I felt bad about that." (She has heard in casual conversations with members of the police that officers routinely resign from the department to seek better pay in other cities.) It also bothers her that the shortage of officers forces police to assign low priority to violations of noise-disturbance laws and the alcohol ban at the beach from 8:00 p.m. to noon the following day. As a result, loud parties with lots of alcohol occur routinely around the fire pits on El Carmel Point. Some residents want the fire pits removed.
The laws governing noise and alcohol use are posted everywhere at the beach. "Everybody knows about them," says Rahe, "but, also, what everybody knows is that they haven't been enforced." The Union-Tribune reported on July 16 that when Paul Mefford was shot, he had been partying with a group of friends who were drinking from a keg of beer. "Now, a keg is not one can of beer you're hiding in a bag. That suggests that they were aware that the post-8:00 p.m. law was being treated lightly by the police department."
Rahe also faults police for not searching for criminals after they commit their crimes in Mission Beach. The night before Cullen's robbery, despite the police assurances earlier in the day, he and several neighbors had to chase off a prowler harassing a woman in her late 20s outside her home on Mission Bay Boulevard. When police arrived, he says, they were polite and compassionate toward the victim, but they didn't go looking for the perpetrator.
Donald DeBlasio, another neighborhood resident, reflects on Mission Beach being a narrow peninsula between the ocean and the bay that has only one southern and one northern escape. "My guess is that the criminals are not swimming out of here," he says.
The problem, according to DeBlasio, is less one of manpower shortage than it is of management. "There isn't a police presence in the beach area," he says. "A cop is referred to as a flatfoot. We don't have those here in San Diego. It's rare to see a single policeman, or maybe two, out walking a beat. They're usually wrapped in their cars with their computers and guns, and they're ganged together.
"If you look at the series of things that led up to the murder this summer, there were guys out there with a bonfire -- it's not like they were hiding -- and there were noise complaints, people screaming and yelling, and kegs. It's easy to play 'what if,' but what if the area was patrolled, and they didn't have the message over the years that it's not only okay to drink here -- hell, we're going to plant a keg? I think you can understand why the other guys who were carrying guns had no fear, either, to hang out there and steal the bicycles and say, 'Hey, we can get out of here, too.' "
In New York City, where DeBlasio is from, "They put cops out walking a beat to let the criminals know that around any corner, at any time, a policeman could be popping up. I don't see that at all here in San Diego. They always say we need more police, but if we had more police we'd have more police in cars driving around or sitting at 7-Eleven. They don't patrol, they don't walk a beat. They gather together and wait for something to happen. Then they're dispatched and five cars show up. We can have more police, but the usage of the police is what I question.
"On Long Island, every once in a while, two cops would park and talk to each other. When that would happen, all the neighbors would call the dispatcher and complain that they weren't doing their job.
"I understand that being a flatfoot is the lowliest job that a New York policeman can have. It is not a fun job, yet it is a necessary job. Even as a kid growing up, they used to do that with the kids gathering in the park. They'd put the cops out on a beat, and they'd sneak up on us, and it made us think that, if we were out drinking our beer, a cop could be coming up. Just the thought that they could sneak up on you was enough, as opposed to a car driving up on you. No way is a police car going to sneak up on you."
According to DeBlasio, the population density in Mission and Pacific Beach is similar to much of New York. But the SDPD "doesn't want to put the cops out there. They don't want them to walk beats. I had friends who were New York police, a crazy job. Who would want to do it? You've got to be nuts. And you know what they told me? 'That's my job.' It is not for everybody, and they understand, when they put on their uniform and go out there, they're putting a bulls-eye on themselves. But that's what they chose to do. If you're looking for the glory and to walk on the beach in your shorts with your friends, then maybe police work isn't what you should be doing."
Paul Cullen's robbery "shook us, because that could have been any one of us," says DeBlasio, "and the way that was handled, the cops seem to just want to fill out a report."
In the robbery, Cullen lost $100 cash, four credit cards, his Social Security card, and his driver's license. The thieves immediately used the credit cards to buy gas, but the card companies, such as Citibank and American Express, quickly closed Cullen's accounts. His luck with the Department of Motor Vehicles has not been as good. He asked the agency for a new driver's license, with a new number, to help protect against his identity being stolen. "They said my request had been denied," says Cullen, "but they couldn't give me a reason why." He had honored the DMV's request to mail to Sacramento the police report and an affidavit from Citibank that the thieves had tried to use his license. "But they said my materials were sent to microfilm. Now, I've gotten a voice-mail message that they can't find my documents. So I'm going to have to start over."