By Robert Salonga and Mark Emmons
Mercury News Staff Writers
SAN JOSE -- Fueled by an alarming uptick in the homicide rate, public perception suggests the Bay Area's largest city has a burgeoning crime problem. But statistics released Wednesday by the San Jose Police Department paint a far different picture.
Gang violence and violent crime in general showed double-digit percentage decreases in the first six months of this year compared with 2012 -- in large part the result of a citywide gang crackdown spearheaded by a surge in street patrols, police say.
But as they highlighted that positive trend Wednesday, police acknowledge there is a huge exception: The homicide rate is ahead of last year's pace, which was a 20-year high.
"It's very reassuring to see the numbersdropping," said Sgt. Jason Dwyer, a police spokesman. "But we don't want to declare victory. There's still a lot of work to do. The one number that's going up is the homicide rate. It's an awkward trend inside the larger trend."
The 15.9 percent dip in gang violence and 10.6 drop in overall violent crime -- including the categories of rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- comes as a surprise considering how, through the end of June, San Jose had recorded 25 homicides. That tally has since risen to 29 as the city continues to outpace last year's figure of 46.
Meanwhile, the police department is in the throes of a morale crisis as it continues to operate without a permanent police chief, sees veteran officers leave for better-paying jobs, and has street cops working huge amounts of overtime to staff the summer-long gang-suppression effort.
The countering trends of rising homicides and lower violent crime is curious, agreed Dawna Komorosky, an associate professor of criminal justice at Cal State East Bay. But she added that six months of data doesn't represent enough time to draw conclusions.
"My gut feeling is this might be because there has been so much change in that department," Komorosky said. "They've lost a lot of officers. But they also may be doing things differently, like targeting areas of high crime. It's hard to say why the homicide rate isn't lower, but maybe they've found something that works here."
Police brass have acknowledged from the start that the gang crackdown would be only a short-term fix given the limits of overtime budgets and police union concerns about officers burning out.
"The amount of overtime is not insignificant," Dwyer said. "It is not a long-term solution. But it's what we believe is necessary right now ... The command staff is juggling three balls right now: the level of gang crime, the money we're spending on overtime and officers' fatigue."
Councilman Xavier Campos, whose East San Jose district sees a large share of city violence, said he was "heartened" by the trends, but was similarly concerned about producing a more lasting crime plan.
"How long can we sustain that? The goal shouldn't be to keep paying overtime to cover the gap," Campos said. "The goal should be how can we retain more police officers."
Another puzzling part of the statistics is even as homicides are up, gang-motivated deaths are down to seven this year compared to 10 in this same stretch in 2012.
"It's a difficult question to answer, why there are more homicides, but less gang-related homicides," Dwyer said.
The statistics offer a midyear snapshot of crime in San Jose and represent a modest sample size. There were 127 gang-related violent crimes through June, compared to 151 in the same period in 2012. That includes gang robberies being slashed by 40 percent.
Policing experts contend the best barometer of violent crime in a community is the number of aggravated assaults. And these type of assaults dropped 10 percent, from 999 during the first half of last year to 899 in the first six months of 2013.
Police launched a summer initiative on June 20 to curtail a sudden spike in gang attacks that authorities feared might foreshadow an especially bloody summer. The so-called "Violent Crime Reduction Plan" saturated gang-plagued neighborhoods to quell fomenting tensions, followed by an increase in gang patrols.
Figures released Wednesday show that in the first 25 days of the summer crackdown, police made 88 felony and 62 misdemeanor arrests; seized eight weapons, including four guns; and logged 2,935 hours patrolling known gang hot spots. There were no gang killings declared during the stretch, though there are pending uncleared homicides.
Although Dwyer did not have specific numbers on nonviolent crimes, he also said that while the department still sees increases in categories like burglary and auto theft, it has begun to "taper off" significantly.
"I don't think that's a coincidence," he said. "We know from experience that by putting pressure on the gangs, all crime drops."
In August, the department plans to recreate a dedicated anti-gang unit -- a duty that had been shared between the special-enforcement METRO and MERGE (SWAT) teams. That new group will have 12 officers and two sergeants.
But for now, the existing gang-suppression effort is showing some results.
Dwyer said one example occurred around 2 a.m. Saturday, when police investigating a shooting arrested two gang members following a high-speed pursuit that saw the suspects toss a shotgun out the window along a South Bay freeway.
"I think that case shows that the word is out," Dwyer said. "There's a lot of heat on the gang members."