Feds try to stave off anticipated uptick in violence this summer
(Tribune News Service) — Aggravated assaults — shootings, stabbings and beatings — have climbed in San Diego since the beginning of the year, part of a national crime wave that the Biden administration warns could make for a particularly violent summer.
While upticks in violent crime during the summer months are common in many major cities, this year could be more of a shock to the system as post-pandemic public life resumes and people continue to grapple with the mental and financial trauma of the past year, experts say.
The Department of Justice late last month announced a strategy to try to get ahead of anticipated bloodshed by partnering federal agencies with local law enforcement to identify and target the most violent offenders in any given community.
That includes FBI resources to help identify violent criminals; agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives embedded with local homicide teams to help with ballistics tests; U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents working with locals to disrupt violent drug networks; and the U.S. Marshals Service apprehending fugitives with violent records.
“We are seeing nationwide an increase in violent crime, particularly homicides and aggravated assaults,” a DOJ official said on a call with reporters. “This is a national issue, and we need to deal with it in a national way.”
How that might play out in San Diego isn’t entirely clear.
San Diego, unlike some parts of the country, already has a long track record of local, state and federal agencies partnering on task forces. There are task forces targeting street gangs, violent crime, drug trafficking, overdose deaths, human trafficking, auto theft, terrorism and border crimes.
Several federal and local agencies working in San Diego County declined to specify how the strategy would be implemented here or if it would change what existing task forces are already doing.
The lack of detail about exactly how federal agencies might identify violent offenders has some community advocates concerned that the end result could be heavy-handed policing against people of color and in certain neighborhoods.
“Even if computers are doing the analysis, Black people will be overwhelmingly impacted negatively,” said Geneviéve Jones-Wright, an attorney and member of the city’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention, noting that algorithms and data analysis are far from bias-free. “The entire idea is terrifying.”
The city of San Diego was among several major metropolitan areas experiencing a rise in violent crime in the first three months of 2021, according to a survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
Aggravated assaults rose to 1,008 in the first quarter — a 33 percent increase compared to the same period last year.
Rape showed a slight increase — 128 compared to 124 last year. That number is expected to rise as people increasingly mingle in social and dating situations post-COVID.
The number of murders, seven, was about on pace with the eight in last year’s first quarter. By the end of 2020, however, killings in the city had risen to 56 total — 10 percent higher than in 2019. The trend was partly attributed to the growing accessibility of ghost guns.
Those guns are assembled at home from parts that often come in prepackaged kits. When sold that way, manufacturers aren’t required by law to include serial numbers, nor are buyers required to pass federal background checks. Sometimes the parts are manufactured with at-home machinery.
Last year, 210 ghost guns were recovered in the city, or 12 percent of the total. That was a 169 percent increase over ghost guns seized in 2019. So far this year, San Diego is on pace to surpass 2020’s seizures, city officials said earlier this month.
“I am concerned about the rise in gun violence we are seeing this year,” Police Chief David Nisleit said as he gathered with other civic leaders recently on National Gun Violence Awareness Day. “Raising awareness and collaborating with community organizations can help keep San Diego safe.”
Last weekend, the Police Department also partnered with community groups in a gun buyback event, offering residents who turn in unwanted firearms gift cards or skateboards in return. The event yielded 64 firearms, including eight assault-style rifles, according to police.
Experts across the country are concerned that the opportunity for violence may also be amplified during the long days of summer as crowded spaces open back up and people continue to confront vestiges of the pandemic.
“There will be more opportunity for crime to happen than when everyone was sitting in the house. The effect of being so locked down over the past year has affected everybody,” said Cindy Burke, director of criminal justice research at the San Diego Association of Governments.
“Robberies are down, but people haven’t been walking around on the streets,” she added. “Will that go up?
Still, Burke said it’s often difficult to identify the exact reasons behind upticks in crime.
“You can’t say one thing is causing another, but factors are all coming together making certain things more likely,” she said. For example: “People suffering with mental health may be self-medicating and that could make them more prone to put themselves in a situation that could lead to violence,” she said.
The DOJ’s summer strategy to get on top of violent crime is part of a broader, long-term plan to reduce violence with a more community-centered approach that also aims to rebuild trust in law enforcement, according to a memo from Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco to U.S. attorneys.
“We have faced a national public health emergency that put people out of work, closed schools, created pressures at home, limited social services, impacted criminal justice systems, and generally disrupted social activity. We have seen civil unrest as people question the legitimacy of our institutions and the role of law enforcement in society,” the memo states. “We cannot be effective in guarding the safety of our communities without their confidence in police and policing. And we know that violent crime is not a problem that can be solved by law enforcement alone.”
The memo also emphasizes the need to measure success by the reduction in violence in communities, not in the number of arrests or prosecutions.
Bishop Cornelius Bowser, founder of Charity Apostolic Church and a longtime gang-intervention advocate, is already strategizing on how to stem gun violence this summer through the No Shots Fired campaign, a city pilot prevention and intervention program, and the national Season of Peace campaign that started in Boston. The basic idea is to call for a ceasefire.
“We want to talk to these guys who engage in violence and get them to agree to a time of peace,” he said. “Let’s put the guns down and focus on positive stuff.”
From the Fourth of July through Labor Day, the campaign will likely include community events such as peace marches, low-rider cruises, street memorials and a dove release with survivors of gun violence, Bowser said.
“You’re not ever going to police your way out of this,” he said.
Staff writer Teri Figueroa contributed to this report.
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