Silicon Valley city battles surging homicide rate

July 30, 2011 - 12:14 PM

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — San Jose has dubbed itself the "Capital of Silicon Valley" and has for years prided itself on being one of the safest big cities in America.

Yet, it is on pace for more than 50 killings in 2011, a rate not seen in about 20 years.

Few in the San Francisco Bay area's most populous city know exactly why it has had 28 murders so far this year, already surpassing 2010's total of 20.

"You can't put your finger on one thing," said Sgt. Jason Dwyer, a police spokesman.

It could be an increase in gang crime, Dwyer said. The department is hoping that the budget-related layoffs of nearly 70 officers in June will not have a negative impact.

"It's been a trying time for us," Dwyer said.

While the morale among the roughly 1,000 officers has taken a hit, San Jose police are trying different tactics to tamp down crime, including the controversial use of federal immigration agents to help it combat homicides and gang violence.

The agents' arrival has angered some in the community, who believe that their presence will prevent illegal immigrants from reporting crimes.

While there hasn't been a murder in San Jose in more than a month, the city's current total is on par with its less populated, but more famous neighbor to the north, San Francisco, which had 29 homicides as of Friday.

So far this year, nearly half of San Jose's deaths have been gang-related.

But one of the more shocking killings was a double-murder and suicide at San Jose State University on May 10. The husband of a graduating honors business student fatally shot her and a male classmate while sitting in her car before he killed himself inside a campus parking garage.

In late June, 66 officers had to turn in their badges after the police union had reluctantly agreed to a 10 percent cut in officer salaries. The move prevented an additional 156 from losing their jobs.

The layoffs — a first for the department — helped the city close a $115 million budget gap. Police Chief Chris Moore called it "one of the saddest days" of his career.

Since then, the department has struggled to keep up morale, Dwyer said.

"It's a dangerous job with no guarantees that we will make it home to our families," Dwyer said. "We can't have officers distracted by lack of manpower and because our friends are no longer working. That's where our professionalism shines through."

Moore said he should have a gauge by next month on the impact of having fewer officers.

"We want people to feel safe walking in our city, but in order to maintain that, our police officers have to be an integral part of it," Moore said.

Despite a population of nearly 1 million, San Jose's crime woes are comparable to those of a growing suburb, said James Lee, a sociology professor at San Jose State.

"It has suburban-like crime issues," Lee said. "While the murders have gone up, that doesn't mean crime has gone up."

Lee said police are going to have to battle the burgeoning gang problem by using smarter strategies, especially since there are fewer officers.

The department has relaunched its Metro Unit that focuses exclusively on the city's 100-plus gangs, and Moore said that's one reason there have been no murders and fewer gang crimes of late.

"All gangs all of the time. That's the focus," Moore said of the 38-member unit that has saturated the gang hotspots.

Moore also credited the presence of two federal immigration agents who are helping police arrest and possibly deport violent gang members who are also illegal immigrants.

"They are doing a great job for us," Moore said.

Some community leaders say the use of the agents is causing mistrust and fear and that they are concerned other, law-abiding illegal immigrants will be affected.

"Chief Moore and his department will realize how much they depend on the immigrant community and having no trust is definitely going to pose a challenge," said Jazmin Segura, of the San Jose-based SIREN (Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network).

Raj Jayadev, director of Silicon Valley DeBug, a local youth organization and a member of San Jose police's Community Advisory Board, said some in the immigrant communities will be afraid to call or talk to the police out of fear of deportation.

"They wonder, 'Am I going to have a job? A place to live? Am I going to be safe,'" Jayadev said. "They're scared."

Deputy Special Agent Shane Folden of Immigration Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations said fears that the agency will remove innocent people are unfounded. He said similar programs have been successful in Santa Cruz and Gilroy.

"Gang members, drug smugglers and child pornographers. Those are the ones who should be afraid," Folden said.

Community advocates recently attended a two-hour meeting with Moore and federal immigration officials.

"We're just as opposed to the program having heard the explanations and description," Jayadev said. "In a public safety framework, it just doesn't seem worth it to jeopardize goodwill and trust with large immigrant communities for the services of two federal ICE agents."

Moore said he knows the community is not completely satisfied with the arrangement.

"If I find these agents are operating outside of our agreement, I will personally escort them out of our building," Moore said. "We can't be the safest city if people are not willing to talk to us."