Anaheim police officer Jesse Romero stopped a juvenile on an Anaheim Street for suspicion of truancy.
BILL ALKOFER, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
ANAHEIM – An upsurge in violent crime in Anaheim that came in the midst of several turbulent years of community upheaval reversed in 2013, led by a significant drop in gang violence.
After a 10 percent increase in violent crime in 2011 and a similar level of violence in 2012, crimes such as robberies, homicides and assaults dropped 11 percent in 2013. Property crimes – including burglaries and thefts – dropped 5 percent.
Determining exactly what is behind a large decrease in crime rates is a difficult proposition, although in Anaheim’s case, a drop in gang activity has made a big difference. The decrease also brings Anaheim in line with other large Southern California cities, whose crime rates have either dropped or remained static in recent years.
The number of gang-related homicides decreased by 25 percent, while gang assaults dropped 38 percent and shootings dipped 62 percent.
Officer-involved shootings in Anaheim also dropped significantly in 2013, a year after a series of fatal confrontations with police led to large-scale unrest in the city. In 2013, one officer-involved shooting – which didn’t result in a death – was reported, after nine in 2012.
For their part, police leaders attribute the turn-around to an ever-increasing emphasis on up-to-the-minute crime analysis. With similar tools available to the public, Anaheim leaders say the technology is also part of an overall effort to rebuild trust in the community.
“My goal is community engagement. That has got to be No. 1,” Anaheim Police Chief Raul Quezada said. “Without that trust there is no foundation, and without that foundation we can’t do anything.”
Despite decreasing crime, gang violence – and the fear it could escalate – is still a threat in some neighborhoods.
“The people who live here feel ill at ease,” said Joanne Sosa, outreach director for the East Street Community Renewal Initiative, a community group headquartered near some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. “They are just holding their breath, waiting for something to happen.”
Crime and unrest
Anaheim’s rate of violent crime, which had been trending down since the early 1990s, unexpectedly jumped 10 percent in 2011 and remained at the elevated level in 2012.
Police said the reasons were unclear, although much of it appeared to be driven by gang activity. The department responded in 2012 by increasing the size of its gang-enforcement detail and stepping up efforts to prevent young people from joining gangs.
Meanwhile, a yearlong federal and local investigation dubbed Operation Halo resulted in the arrests of more than 30 suspected gang members on Aug. 20, 2012. Months later, a court injunction restricting the activities of gang members was served in the area around Anna Drive, the same neighborhood targeted by Operation Halo.
As the crime rate rose and police put more focus on certain neighborhoods thought to harbor gangs, the department’s relationship with many residents grew strained.
Frustration at the number of police shootings in 2012 boiled over in a near-riot in the city’s downtown in the summer of 2012. The unrest drew attention to the divide between the affluent side of Anaheim and the struggles in the city’s working class, largely Latino neighborhoods.
After the turmoil, police leaders acknowledged the need to rebuild trust, particularly in impoverished neighborhoods.
Despite concerns that the release of investigations into several high-profile police shootings could fan discord, there were no major outbreaks of violence in 2013.
A quick response
Quezada attributed the recent decrease in crime to technical tools that pinpoint emerging trends, as well as ongoing community-outreach efforts.
For the past several years, the department has emphasized technology and its crime-analysis team. Meetings to discuss up-to-the-minute crime statistics and field intelligence that were once held monthly in the last year have begun to be held weekly.
On a recent Monday afternoon, investigator Pete Wann used the department’s crime map to illustrate a series of commercial robberies near Ball Road.
“They are all window smashes, occurring at nighttime, kind of what you would expect from commercial burglaries,” Wann said. “So we’ll attack this immediately. I’ll go down to briefing tonight and talk to the watch commander and the officers and tell them about the problem.”
The links Wann and his colleagues draw from reported crimes are used to target “hot spots.” Similar technology is available for anyone in the community to access via the Anaheim Police Department’s website. Crime reports show up on the online map within 24 hours, police say. Some information on sensitive incidents such as sex crimes are not publicly released in order to protect victims.
But investigators say data crunching is only part of the puzzle. Wann noted that the firsthand experience and knowledge in the field turns the “pins on a map” into “human intelligence.”
“It’s very difficult to see where violent crime is trending until it is too late,” Wann said. “You really need to go talk to somebody and say, ‘Hey, it looks like this gang is angry with this other gang, maybe there is retaliation that is going to occur.’”
Recession and attrition led to the loss of more than 50 police personnel over the past several years, and the department was stretched thin, Quezada said. Patrol units raced from one call to the next.
In 2013, city leaders gave the department permission to increase its ranks from 351 sworn officers to 364.
“You never want to go back and rebuild what you were. That just doesn’t work,” Quezada said. “You have got to look at what is emerging now, where do we get the most bang for our buck. We know preventative measures are the absolute best.”
One of the more visible outreach efforts has been foot patrols, particularly in a dozen “priority neighborhoods.” The officers on the foot beats interact with residents and work to improve neighborhood ties.
The department has paired its gang unit with its “youth services” division, as programs targeted at younger residents increased dramatically in 2013. The department’s junior cadet program, which two years ago saw 140 graduates, had 237 graduates last year and officials expect to graduate more than 500 in June.
For larger community concerns, the department has continually expanded its advisory board, made up of community representatives who are encouraged to bring concerns directly to the command staff.
Why the drop in officer-involved shootings? Quezada said that is the “million-dollar question.” In addition to the D.A.’s investigation into police shootings, internal investigations are also carried out, with the results incorporated into ongoing training.
“We take every incident and we learn,” Quezada said. “Are there areas we need to improve on? Do we need to modify policies or procedures to prevent it from happening? We take it seriously.”
Despite outreach efforts, relations between police and some residents remain strained.
In the last year, some family members of those killed in police shootings have criticized the department’s presence in their neighborhoods, particularly by officers directly involved in the shootings. City leaders earlier this month agreed to convene a citizen-based oversight panel to review police actions, although critics believe the board’s power won’t go far enough.
“They see lip service, but they don’t see it working yet,” Sosa said of some residents’ reactions to the police outreach efforts.
While large-scale efforts such as Operation Halo resulted in dozens of convictions, police know those jailed will return to the streets at some point.
“This person gets out of custody; he’s still going to come back to this neighborhood. How are we going to prevent him from re-engaging in criminal activity?” Quezada said.
Statewide, the crime rate has hovered at a historic low for the past several years.
While five years of consistent statewide crime decreases came to an end in 2012, the increase that year was relatively minor, about 3.4 percent, and was driven by increases in property, not violent, crimes.
Locally, a study conducted by Orange County’s police agencies found that overall crime rose more than 9 percent in the months after October 2011, when the state started “realignment,” which shifted responsibility for supervising and jailing many felons from the state to the county level.
More recently, Santa Ana reported a 16 percent decrease in violent crimes and a 13 percent decrease in property crimes in 2013 compared to the previous year. Violent and property crimes in Santa Ana have consistently trended downward during the past decade.
BY SEAN EMERY / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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