Sooner or later, according to Bill Farrar, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, tragic events will expose how understaffed the city's police force is. At 1.65 per 1000, San Diego has one of the lowest ratios of police officers to 1000 residents in the country. Cops on the street also complain that their pay is lower than they could get in areas as close as Riverside County. "We're losing eight or nine officers a month," says Farrar, "and none are being hired for the next year. This budget mess we're in is real."
Many people assume the tragic events Farrar speaks of already happened in Lincoln Park, where five people were murdered at or near the former Dr. J's Liquor in the last two years.
"We've lived in this neighborhood since 1983," says local resident Mike Miller, "but what's been going on here in the last two years is beyond the pale. This stretch of Logan between 47th Street and Euclid Avenue is a virtual killing ground.
"The latest murders," continues Miller, "go back in my memory to a six-year-old boy who was killed near 49th and Logan a couple of years ago. Then we had two gangbangers that were killed in front of Dr. J's [on March 1, 2002]." In that case, Geraldo Ojito was ordered to stand trial on charges that he murdered 14-year-old Larson Tufi and 16-year-old Jose Alegria.
In May of last year, I went with Miller to visit Dr. J's at 5080 Logan Avenue, near the intersection of Logan and Euclid Avenues. On the first of the month, someone had fatally shot the owner, Eddie Meram, and left him lying in a pool of blood in the rear of the store. Meram was a friendly, popular man in the neighborhood, often permitting customers to run up lines of credit. Now his store stood abandoned, its door locked with chains. Flowers had already wilted on the sidewalk.
Miller pointed to bullet holes all over the wood of the store's front wall. Those came from a spray of bullets fired into a crowd of people gathered in front of Dr. J's a little more than a year ago, at 1:00 a.m. on New Year's Day. The shots killed Carol Waites, 45, of Valencia Park, and Sharon Burton, 32, of Temecula. Four of the bullets also struck Waites's nephew Ozvie Harris, who eventually recovered from lung injuries after a stay in the hospital.
As cries against gang violence and pleas for police action went up in more affluent neighborhoods, such as Mission Beach, in the past year, resignation seems to have gripped many in Lincoln Park. Perhaps residents there already knew it was useless to ask, much less demand. They believe the city doesn't send enough police into the area to prevent crime. And Mike Miller wonders what the police have been doing since the murders. "If these kinds of events took place in any other part of town," he says, "resources would become immediately available. But we seem to suffer from the Chinatown syndrome. It's business as usual, and after a week or two, everybody forgets about it. I guess the city fathers expect that kind of stuff to happen down here.
"In the van Dam scenario," continues Miller, "it seems like lots of police personnel appeared right away. Of course, an ongoing kidnapping was suspected for a while. But you would think that the city fathers could do more in our area. I'm sure they've heard this."
Apparently new police chief William Lansdowne has heard it. On January 1 of this year, the Union-Tribune reported that he has formed a special task force to investigate Lincoln Park's recent murders. The chief also claims that police need only a bit more evidence to make an arrest in the New Year's Day killings. But they have yet to announce any suspects in that day's shooting or the store owner's murder.
Regarding crime of a different type, says Mike Miller, "People are so poor around here that if somebody wants to burglarize, they're going to go to some other neighborhood. I don't think we're any worse than other areas in that respect. But this murder rate is horrendous. If the killings are all gang-related, then the police ought to come down hard on the gangs no matter how it infringes on their constitutional liberties. Traditionally, the attitude has been, 'As long as they're doing each other in, then who cares?' But now they're shooting innocent people and kids -- anybody that happens to be around."
Today, next door to the newly painted Island View Market (formerly Dr. J's Liquor) sits the local YWCA. A shopping center on the other side of the street houses several Christian groups and the nonprofit "Children Having Children, Inc." In the same center, the upstairs Southeast Alano Club occupies a few small rooms across the hall from Prodigal Sons Fellowship.
Miller blames many of the area's problems on high concentrations of people along Logan between 47th and Euclid. Large apartment buildings on both sides of the street make available hundreds of dwellings, many of them Section 8 housing (a federal allowance program that provides rent subsidies).
A woman who attends the Alano Club recovery meetings says she's heard other attendees admit the apartments were where they bought or used drugs. And police officers say that local gang members sneak in and out of the apartment complexes' rear entrances to deliver drugs and hide out.
But stereotypes about the area and its residents are unfair, says Toni El-Amin, an administrative assistant in the offices of the Bay Vista Methodist Heights Apartments on Logan near 49th Street. El-Amin feels the police use the stereotyping more flagrantly than anyone. "They should get to know the community instead of stereotyping people," she says. "They never approach the people in a good way. The first thing they should do is teach us our rights." She remembers looking out the window of her Bay Vista office last summer and seeing a cop "harassing" one of the building's residents as he played with his son on the premises. "They're trying to get their quota," she says.
Samantha Meachem, El-Amin's colleague at Bay Vista, is also disappointed with the police, especially in connection with the unsolved murders. Like Miller, she thinks if the murders had occurred in a different area, the police would investigate more. "And when they can't find anything," she adds, "they say, 'Oh, it's gangs,' and they drop it."
Adds El-Amin, "There could be a real crook coming in from outside the area. Come to think of it, there were no witnesses to the murder of Meram inside his store."
Law enforcement is not likely to take its eyes off gangs anytime soon, however. Says Lieutenant Vince Villalvazo, head of the SDPD's special gangs unit, increased police attention to gang crime in the year leading up to last July had reduced such crime by 15 percent. Yet he cites the occurrence of 11 gang-related homicides in the same period. So even before Lansdowne was named its new chief, the police department had increased the number of its gang-suppression teams from two to three. (Each team has six officers and a sergeant.)
"Specialty units, however valuable they may be, are drawn from the ranks of patrol," says the Police Officers Association's Farrar, a 32-year veteran of the SDPD. "Patrol officers are the ones who answer 911 calls, which are our highest priority." Even with San Diego's police staffing at its current low levels, he adds, a specialty like the gang unit is not going to be eliminated, because gang problems are too evident throughout the city. But others, such as the inebriation and community policing units, may have to be cut to avoid robbing the patrol of its forces.
When Susan Golding was mayor, the city made a five-year commitment to raise its ratio of police officers from 1.65 to 2.0 per 1000 residents. But time passed, says Farrar, and the city council lost sight of its pledge. "Other large cities," he says, "have ratios double, triple, and quadruple that of San Diego. But we're used to operating at this level."
Farrar thinks that San Diego's police suffer from their own success. Over the years, he says, San Diego has developed an excellent reputation for its police work. That may explain how the city has been able to hire Chief Lansdowne at an annual salary nearly $17,000 below what he was making in the smaller department of San Jose. Farrar also points to nationwide praise the department received for its success in controlling the 2001 Biotechnology Conference. Similar gatherings held elsewhere, such as the antiglobalization conferences in Seattle and Genoa, Italy, caused widespread chaos and lawlessness.
But, according to Farrar, the city council is not facing up to what's going on in the police department. Take the health-care plan provided for its officers, he says, which covers all health costs of unmarried personnel. "But officers who have families," says Farrar, "pay out of their own pockets an extra $150 to $200 per payday to get their spouse and children covered." He adds that Mayor Murphy even voted against the modest increases in officer pay that the last contract negotiations granted and that the whole council eventually approved.
"The police [just] react these days," says Lincoln Park resident Mike Miller. "They don't seem to be as proactive as they were 15 or 20 years ago. Now they're going around to scrape up all the garbage, coming in to deal with it after the fact."