By Martin Ricard, STAFF WRITER
The Daily Review
January 20, 2008
SAN LEANDRO — Every time Patti Gowan pulls into her driveway at night, she takes a hard look around before walking inside.
It didn’t used to be this way for Gowan, 49, who has lived in the Estudillo Estates neighborhood for nearly 25 years.
But over the past year and a half, what she has experienced has changed her views significantly.
Six months ago, someone pried open her boyfriend’s car as it was parked on the street in front of her home and stole some change from the glove compart-ment.
Several months later, Gowan’s home was burglarized just as she was returning from a flight. The thief, she said, was eventually caught.
Then, two weeks later, her boyfriend’s car was parked at her home and again was burglarized. This time thieves took the catalytic converter.
Gowan says she knows what city officials have been saying — that overall crime in the city has gone down. But in her world, on her block, it seems like just the opposite.
“There is a change in the neighborhood,” Gowan said. “That touches you and heightens your feeling that you need to be more vigilant.”
She is not alone. Others are increasingly starting to say that they, too, think crime has become a nuisance throughout the city, especially after several brazen robberies and numerous other thefts in recent months.
But many city officials have been saying those concerns are just perception and that residents have no reason for heightened fear.
Regardless, the state of public safety has sparked debate between City Hall and city streets, and people are crying out for solutions.
“I have lived for seven years in the Glen Drive area, and for the last six months, my neighbors have been telling me that their homes are being broken into,” said resident Matt Macy. “That’s real.”
“Stuff has been going on with a frequency that’s much higher (than before),” he added.
The City Council called a work session last week to address residents’ con-cerns about crime, and heard a report from the police department about crime statistics in San Leandro.
Police Chief Dale Attarian explained to council members that there have been “no drastic changes” in crime over the past decade or so, and that police are “capturing a vast majority of crime in our town.”
He also detailed some of the crime trends — particularly robberies, aggra-vated assaults and auto thefts — and noted that the police department has been proactive in making arrests, in many cases at a higher rate than other police departments in the area.
But he also noted that the department has been operating with 10 percent less staff than needed.
The FBI reported that the violent crime rate in San Leandro rose by about 40 percent in 2006, from 465 violent crimes to 650. Most of that stemmed from an increase in robberies and aggravated assaults.
The rate of auto theft in 2006 also spiked by about 20 percent, from 1,040 to 1,247, according to the FBI.
But last year, violent crime and property crime dropped, while auto theft in-creased only slightly, according to the San Leandro police report. There also were no homicides, a first for the city since 1985, Attarian said.
“So it seems to indicate that things aren’t as bad as what people have been saying,” Councilwoman Diana Souza said Monday.
Despite the police report, some residents are still skeptical of the numbers.
Some have been particularly upset with Mayor Tony Santos’ initial response to the issue, saying he has been relying too heavily on the data and not acknowledging their concerns about crime.
When Santos last week held a meeting to address presidents of the neighbor-hood associations, more than 100 people showed up to chastise both him and the city for their approach.
“The mayor struck a nerve by trying to make his best effort to imply … that crime is going down,” said resident George Bond. “The FBI doesn’t agree with that.”
Bond was alluding to the FBI data on San Leandro’s crime rate in 2006, which was higher per capita in burglaries, homicides and auto thefts than in Hayward, a city with nearly twice its population.
Others applauded the city’s efforts and said that perhaps crime can’t be avoided because San Leandro is part of an urban environment.
Still, the city should be making a better effort to “expose the reality of crime” and not just rely on statistics to gauge what’s really going on, said Tim Holmes, owner of Zocalo Coffeehouse and a local activist.
“I don’t care what the statistics say. What I’m saying to the city is, whether crime has gone up or down, it’s too much,” he said. “And now that we have an understanding of what’s going on, it needs to be addressed.”
In response to those claims, Santos said he wants residents to know he has been listening to their concerns.
He has called for the council to hold another meeting within the next month to work with residents on finding a solution. He said he has passed on resi-dents’ concerns to the police chief so that he can respond to them accordingly. Santos also said he will propose this year to bring back the police department’s community liaison position, which was cut several years ago because of the city’s budget crisis.
“I want to especially work with the homeowners associations to develop some type of program that alleviates some of the concerns out there,” Santos said.
“If it takes walking the neighborhoods, let’s do that. If it takes developing some type of other program, let’s do that.”
Some people are already starting to take matters into their own hands.
Constance Stephens, the wife of Councilman Bill Stephens, is forming a new group, called Citizens for a Safer San Leandro, to brainstorm ideas for improving public safety in the city.
A number of folks, such as Gowan, have taken the more traditional approach: installing security systems in their homes.
Gowan said it was necessary because, although most of the crimes being committed in her neighborhood have been nonviolent, “it’s been more scary.”
Mike Katz, a San Leandro schools trustee and local blogger, said he thinks the recent discussions about crime may have served as a wake-up call to the com-munity that, despite what the statistics say or what people think, the most ef-fective crime-stoppers are the people themselves.
“I think that the community can do more to decrease the number of crimes than law enforcement can,” Katz wrote in a recent e-mail. “If more people get to know their neighbors, participate in the local community and spend more time walking in their neighborhoods, that will have the greatest impact on reducing crime and improving safety in San Leandro.”