By Robert Salonga
Staff Writer, SJ Mercury News
SAN JOSE -- After reaching a two-decade peak last year, the homicide count in San Jose reached another milestone in 2013.
The number of homicides in the city topped 40 for the third consecutive year, a distinction not reached in two decades. And over the three-year period, San Jose also saw an increase in burglaries, car thefts and other "quality of life" crimes that are part of the public safety conversation.
Property crimes actually dipped about 9 percent in 2013 but that only modestly offset the previous year's meteoric 30 percent jump in the category, including a 71 percent surge in car thefts.
The rise in property crimes, burglaries and car thefts, a larger number of people are affected by that, so it tends to get more public interest," Mayor Chuck Reed said. "We don't accept the current level of crime as something we should live with. The public expects us to bring it down, whether it's homicides or burglaries."
The city recorded 44 homicides this year, all in the first 11 months of the year. The deaths include a killing investigated by San Jose State University police that the San Jose Police Department does not count toward its total. That follows 46 in 2012 and 42 in 2011, the latter figure also including two university deaths.
The tally marks a steady rise: 2010 saw 20 homicides, and for most of the previous decade counts hovered in the 20s, corresponding with a six-year period from 2001-2006 when San Jose was ranked the safest big city in the country.
Police Chief Larry Esquivel stresses that the unusually high three-year homicide count needs to be considered against a city population that is approaching 1 million residents.
"For a major city, in the bigger picture, they're still low," Esquivel said. "But I want those numbers to go down. I don't want citizens to think those are the norm."
To lifelong San Jose resident Hardy Watkins, that moment has already arrived. His nephew Justin was shot to death May 26 -- three days shy of his 21st birthday -- on Hayes Avenue near Oak Grove High School while walking home from his job at GameStop in Oakridge Mall. The case remains unsolved.
Even before that, Watkins said he has seen a negative shift in the city.
"To be honest, I don't feel safe," said Watkins, who lives in South San Jose.
Watkins recalled telling his nephew, who had moved from Ohio to live with him a short time before he was killed, to keep away from certain streets, including the one where he died. He repeats the same lessons to other young people in his neighborhood, some of whom he mentors.
"I tell them be careful, don't wear the wrong color, stay out of the wrong place at nighttime," he said. "I feel sorry for these young folks. I hardly walk these streets anymore. I keep a stun gun in my pocket when I'm walking the dog at the park across the street."
Observers of the city and its police department say any discussion of crime trends in San Jose must include a conversation about the exodus of officers from SJPD amid a years-long fight between the union and city over pay and retirement benefits. During the same three-year period when homicide count has topped 40, early retirements and resignations have shrunk the force by around 100 officers a year, bringing the sworn staff to just over 1,000, down more than 400 from five years ago.
The departures have spurred an "all hands on deck" mantra that includes having detectives and other specialized units pulling patrol shifts to maintain baseline street coverage. But police insiders worry it still might not be enough to maintain the kind of community-based policing experts say makes the most of an undermanned force.
"It has been proven to be an effective way of policing, especially when you have a department lacking resources," said Dawna Komorosky, chair of criminal-justice administration at Cal State East Bay. "That manpower pulled from the street does significantly affect crime prevention."
A city audit released in December revealed figures that may bear out those kinds of effects, highlighted by the overall arrest tally essentially dropping by half in 2012 compared with 2007, a year before layoffs, resignations and pay cuts began decimating the police force. The report also showed that police response times rose sharply for all but the most vital emergency calls.
It's a reality that many residents have come to accept, including Vince Navarra, president of the Hamann Park Neighborhood Association, which has tried to fill the void by hiring private security officers and boosting neighbors' acumen in identifying potential burglars and car thieves.
"People are starting to observe and call police," Navarra said. "It's the community banding together because the police can't do it. When we get more community involvement, it's a better outcome for our whole neighborhood."
While homicides are a handy barometer the public uses to gauge safety, they don't neatly reflect a city's violence. San Jose in 2013 also showed a drop in gang slayings from 18 to 10, while domestic violence-related cases rose from five to seven. And in an unusual turn, three deaths from car crashes involved drivers deemed reckless enough to warrant homicide charges.
That 2013 approximated last year's homicide total despite a 10-percent dip in aggravated assaults -- the crime that usually precedes a homicide -- shows how a rise and fall in killings can come down to a few indiscriminate bullets.
That sort of cruel chance played out in the death of 19-year-old Kimberly Joyce Chico, who was hit by a bullet downtown Aug. 3 while riding in a car that unwittingly drove into a crossfire between gang members, three of whom have since been charged with murder.
Her death was a black mark on a mostly successful summer gang-suppression surge by the police department that was spurred in part by a late-May string of killings, highlighted by the mob beating and execution of 16-year-old Manuel Urzua in a notorious gang neighborhood near King Road and Virginia Avenue.
The success of those efforts, however, was clouded by a continuing controversy about how gang-crime statistics -- which cover a large share of the city's property crimes -- are gathered. In 2013, SJPD announced that for the first time, it would more narrowly define how it associates gang motives with crimes, including homicides. The move raised questions about how much of a reported drop in gang crimes was a result of declining incidents and how much was a result of the new definition, since the new numbers were being compared to previous years when a broader definition was used.
To Sgt. Jim Unland, the police union president, it's another example of city leaders trying to convince the public San Jose has somehow become safer despite having hundreds fewer officers on the street.
"After that whole gang stat fiasco, I don't know how anyone has confidence in numbers they throw out from this day forward," Unland said.
Ultimately, Esquivel said, figures tell only part of the story. He cited residents' praise of higher police visibility in the most affected neighborhoods as hard proof the anti-gang strategies are working.
"The perception of safety in those areas is getting better," he said. "We still have a lot of gang activity out there. But gang members are getting to know our units are out, and they're seeing them on a regular basis."