April 1, 2013

Core-city crimes inch upward; police say it's still pretty safe

Public perception has not been kind to Sacramento's central city. A series of high-profile crimes has fueled the notion that the downtown and midtown areas are no longer safe – places where even unsuspecting people can fall victim to violent crime.

It's a busy Thursday night at downtown's Parlare Euro Lounge, with two police cars parked out front – lights flashing – and two burly bouncers at the entrance. Every patron is getting wanded before being allowed inside.

Still, customers seem unfazed. Young men and women laugh, pose for cellphone photos and, by the looks of it, enjoy their cocktails as much as each other.

Owner Dale Robertson said his clientele has welcomed the extra security he put in place after two men died in a New Year's Eve shooting at an Old Sacramento sports bar a dozen blocks away.

His efforts are costing him a lot of money – but not as much as if he had chosen to do nothing, he said.

"The reality is, if you don't do it, you won't have business," said Robertson, who opened his club at 10th and J streets six years ago. "We're trying to create a safe, fun environment for people to come downtown. It's our lifeline. Public perception is very important."

Recently, public perception has not been kind to Sacramento's central city. A series of high-profile crimes has fueled the notion that the downtown and midtown areas are no longer safe – places where even unsuspecting people can fall victim to violent crime.

It has cooled some residents' love affair with the city's core.

"It's definitely getting scary down here," said Jackie Cuneo, a bartender at a midtown restaurant.

The perception is not completely off the mark. According to Sacramento Police Department statistics, violent and property crimes rose in 2012 after five years of dramatic declines – a trend seen city- and nationwide.

Since last summer, a number of crimes have garnered significant attention. In the most recent examples two weeks ago, 28-year-old Josiah Humphreys was fatally beaten at P and 18th streets and, that night, a man was assaulted with a baseball bat at D and 20th streets. Police initially investigated that incident as a hate crime, but now say detectives no longer suspect the attack was motivated by bias.

Sacramento police officials said they are sensitive to the tragedies and the effect they've had on the public consciousness. But they maintain that the central city is a safe place to live, work and play – and that the crimes that grab headlines are relatively infrequent given the thousands of people who move in and out of the area on a daily basis.

"Sometimes you can do your best and instances like that will happen," said Capt. Bill Champion, who oversees the central command. "Personally, I believe they're totally isolated incidents."

Overall trend emphasized

Last year, 324 violent crimes were reported in the central city, according to a Bee review of police data. That was a 5 percent increase over 2011 – the same uptick seen across the city.

Nearly 3,300 property crimes – auto theft, burglary and theft – were reported to police, a nearly 9 percent jump over the previous year. The citywide increase was 8 percent.

But those increases did little to erode the progress made over the previous five years, according to the police data. Central-city violent crime has decreased 29 percent compared with 2007 – the first year crime began to decline in Sacramento. Property crime decreased 11 percent over the same period.

Even the ailing Downtown Plaza and connecting K Street corridor – which produces the most crime of any similarly sized area in the entire city – has seen improvements. In 2012, that area – where city officials hope to build a new arena for the Sacramento Kings – saw 32 violent crimes and 411 property crimes, a decrease of 51 percent and 11 percent, respectively, from 2007.

Officer Brent Meyer, who works the graveyard shift in the central city, said he's seen marked improvement since he worked the same shift 10 years ago. Back then, police, sometimes in riot gear, regularly had to deal with unruly, volatile crowds and irresponsible club promoters.

Now, officers spend the vast majority of their time on car break-ins, traffic stops and drunks.

"That's really the mainstay of what keeps us busy Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights," he said. "Every other night, the sidewalk gets rolled up."

Police nonetheless readily acknowledge the unique challenges associated with the central city. Last fall, the department's leadership redrew district boundaries to add a fourth patrol district and put downtown and midtown under a single command.

This year, they created the "Core Safety Program," a team of officers who don't respond to calls for service but instead focus on specific problems or trends, such as a string of burglaries.

Also complementing the work of regular patrol officers are the bike and mounted units and the entertainment team, which makes sure business are in compliance with rules and regulations. Gang detectives and "crime suppression" teams also can be deployed in the central city, as they were Thursday night.

Champion and Meyer both noted that police are quick to respond to problems as they arise, in large part because of attention paid to crime statistics. Every week, Champion, like every other division commander, hosts a strategy meeting in which police review data, look for patterns and decide on a course of action.

"We don't have a lot of resources, so we have to be smart about how we deploy resources," Champion said.

So far this year, police believe their targeted enforcement is paying off. Statistics from the first three months of the year show robberies, burglaries to businesses, vehicle break-ins and vehicle thefts are down compared with the same period last year. And officer-initiated stops – a sign of proactive policing – are up 7 percent, said police spokesman Officer Doug Morse.

Assaults with a deadly weapon and residential burglaries, however, have increased, Morse said.

In talking about the crimes that linger in the public memory – such as the killing of 32-year-old Joseph Long near J and 28th streets last summer – police officials try to strike a delicate balance. They say they do not want to be dismissive of such events, nor do they think it is fair for those events to be the sole basis for people's opinions on safety.

But, like Robertson, Champion said he knows perception is critical.

"That might be unfair at times," he said, "but do I take it seriously? You bet."

Businesses share warnings

Other business owners understand this, too, and are taking measures to address the safety concerns of customers.

One month after Long was fatally shot, businesses in that area joined forces to hire two off-duty officers to police the surrounding blocks on Friday and Saturday nights.

This month, Robertson at 10th and J, and several neighboring business owners, did the same thing.

"That concentrated police presence has been good for the community," said Elizabeth Studebaker, executive director of the Midtown Business Association. "When potential criminals see an actual police vehicle, that's pretty serious to them, (and) people know we're serious about defending and protecting midtown."

Many of the same businesses are connected by a radio frequency they use to share information and exchange warnings on problem patrons. The channel is monitored by private security officers as well as police.

Business owners and police agree the cooperation among them is unprecedented – and is keeping the central city safer.

"We've never had so much police support before," Robertson said. "Prior, we felt it was 'them' and 'us.' "

William Burg, secretary of the Midtown Neighborhood Association, said he would like a mechanism in place to fund police protection for the area with profits from expanding businesses. He said such a model exists in larger cities such as Los Angeles that are committed to their downtown centers.

Such a model was discussed in Sacramento several years ago, he said, but the idea languished. Now is the time to revisit it, he said.

"The conversation is changing about the safety of midtown," said Burg, a longtime resident. "If the perception changes that it's dangerous if people stop coming, that gravy train dries up."

Some business owners are relying upon cheaper, common-sense approaches. John Yoon, owner of A&P Liquors at 21st and K streets, said adding more lighting last year not only improved safety in the area, but helped him attract new customers.

"It's just a simple thing to make people more comfortable," he said.

A small stack of handbills on the store's counter implored, "Who Killed Josiah Humphreys?"

Yoon referenced that attack: "This happens in residential areas. There are no lights."

Like police, many business leaders say the central city remains a safe place given the population's tremendous ebb and flow: Dion Dwyer, a director at the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, said that approximately 100,000 people come through every day.

"We're holding 20 percent of the city's population in the downtown core on a daily basis," he said. "When you look at the district, 35 businesses opened in the last 12 months. People are investing their money here."

Memories and perceptions

Memories, though, can be tough to erase. Some uneasy residents and visitors recall the killing of Victor Zavala, 24, in September 2010 – the night of Second Saturday artwalk activities – as a dubious milestone.

"That was the beginning of the end," said Cuneo, the midtown bartender. "I think that Second Saturday was kind of the end of downtown being safe."

Others were startled by the death of Long at J and 28th, struck by a stray bullet in a popular nightlife area. Still others say it was the steady drumbeat of incidents that followed: A woman shot when she refused to give up her purse to a robber; a man shot after a barfight spilled outside; a brief string of armed robberies before the holidays; bullet holes found early Friday in the windows of a restaurant at L and 18th streets.

And then there are those who say they've seen the progress made in the central city. Burg, of the neighborhood association, said the relative safety of the area could be exactly why the notable crimes are so worrisome.

"Today it's very much a high-profile area and generally it feels a lot safer," he said. "The difference is, a high-profile area does have the public's attention. If there is a series of crimes, that can really change people's perception."


Violent crimes in the central city in 2012, a 5 percent increase over 2011.


Drop in reported crimes since 2007; violent crime fell by half in the same span. INTERACTIVE Explore crime trends in Sacramento downtown neighborhoods at sacbee.com/datacenter

Call The Bee's Kim Minugh, (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter @kim_minugh.

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