Adolfo Gonzales | National City Police Chief

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The San Diego Union - Tribune - San Diego, Calif.


Dec 20, 2007

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Adolfo Gonzales was named National City police chief in July 2004, the highest-ranking Hispanic in San Diego County law enforcement. His tenure has been marked by public outreach and by innovative approaches. Dramatic decreases are showing up in the city's crime statistics. Gonzales was interviewed Dec. 3 by Union- Tribune editorial writer Don Sevrens.

National City has had the perception of having the first or second highest crime rate of whatever category you pick. Even this morning there was a reference of that kind in print. But that's no longer true, is it?

It's no longer true, particularly in regard to gang activity. If you look at the last two years, this year and last year, we only had one gang-related homicide. Wow.

Reports from the San Diego Association of Governments show the FBI index crimes for the various jurisdictions in the county over the last few years, statistics for 2003, 2006 and the first half of 2007. What city would be comparable to National City in either total population or demographics?

La Mesa is similar in total population. San Marcos or Vista are similar in demographics. The other cities don't have the same things we have, for example we have Interstate 5, the bayfront, state Route 54, Interstate 805. With all the freeways coming through here, criminals can be very mobile. We're less than seven miles from the international border. So we get a lot of traffic that a community like La Mesa might not see. Vista and San Marcos have some freeway similarities but are more removed from the border. Del Mar is similar, particularly with the Del Mar Fair attracting outside visitors. This year La Mesa had a higher crime rate than National City. And Del Mar had a higher property crime rate. That has not gotten a lot of media play, however. National City over the past four or five years has had double-digit decreases in crime every year.

So in terms of actual crime rates, crimes per 1,000 population, Del Mar actually had a property crime rate higher than National City. La Mesa and El Cajon also have higher total crime rates?

Yes, higher than National City.

There have been dramatic drops in National City comparing the first half of '07 with comparable figures of '06. In some categories they have been 20 percent or 25 percent. Is that because of demographic changes, the cohort of young males is getting older and out of the crime-prone years? Or is that because of changes in the police force and what it is doing?

It's multifaceted. The demographics definitely are changing. The Police Department's efforts have had an impact. The relationship that the police and community enjoy today make a difference. The other piece is that the community is taking more of an ownership. The community has neighborhood council meetings that residents participate in. Now, they're telling us what they want and need. We always have an officer, a supervisor, at those meetings so we hear firsthand complaints about abandoned cars, kids hanging around in the evenings, and we respond. Because the next month we have to come back and report what we've done about it. So it helps us stay accountable. Are we going to be able to get rid of crime? Not always, but I think we can manage it to a point that my goal is to make us the safest city in the county for our size. And I like what we're doing today. The population numbers used to compute crimes per 1,000 people are not as accurate as they could be. Our daytime population is almost double our nighttime population. So I also look at the raw numbers of crimes.

So you're no longer No. 1 or No. 2 in many categories. Are you dropping across the the board?

Across the board we're coming down. Especially in robberies. La Mesa was having some problems on robberies. Our robberies are coming down. Aggravated assaults are coming down. In recent years, homicides have gone from nine a year to two or three. This year we're at six homicides. So we're looking at why they are up this year. If you go back and analyze the homicide cases, in a domestic violence case a husband killed his wife and then killed himself in a suicide. Another one was a gay couple. One had killed the partner and they arrested him in San Diego. The other two were narcotics- related. The fifth one was an actual gang-related where the suspects walked up to the corner house where the guy was standing in the driveway and shot him in the head. The suspects live in Chula Vista. That is pending. Another pending case is where the mother shook her baby who is now on life support. So that could be a homicide or it could be child abuse. The point is, only one is gang-related, a huge improvement. In 2003 we had nine gang-related homicides.

What has changed?

I attribute that to many factors. One is we started the gang enforcement unit. We're doing more community outreach. We're teaching the community about gang awareness. We're partnering with the schools. We're working with the faith community. We're working with the low-rider community now. All of that together is making a difference. It's not that people have stopped shooting.

The goal is to be the safest city in the county for our size. What more can we do? We'll partner up with the faith community. We we can do much more outreach in terms of how to just run the programs. We're working with the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Project Safe Neighborhoods. We're going to focus on what can we do to eliminate gun violence, gun crimes. People have the right to bear arms and we respect that. But what can we do to get the guns off the kids who shouldn't have them or who commit robberies such as the one here where a store employee was shot in the mouth.

What about rapes?

When I looked at the rapes, the majority were acquaintance rapes. We need to continue working with Southwest Community Services. We have a couple of counselors in our department to reach out to our young adults and our teenagers as to how we can prevent the sexual assaults. We did have an issue with registered sex offenders. We had 113 registered sex offenders in 2004. We're at 78 now. We went out and visited them and did compliance checks. So everything plays a role, I believe. And we have been able to hire more officers because of the increased revenue from the sales tax. That also has played a major role.

What about motor vehicle thefts? Historically they have been high in National City because of all the freeway access and proximity to the border.

Car thefts were up to almost a thousand a year. They've gone down a little bit to about 800, 850. That's still not acceptable. In cooperation with the Police Officers Association, we are going to donate security (steering-wheel) clubs. We are working closely with Plaza Bonita security personnel and their cameras to do more surveillance within the parking lots. We're working with the Navy because other thefts are occurring on Navy property in a long-term parking where the sailors leave their cars when they go out to sea.

What are the worst sites for car thefts?

We started plotting a map of where the cars are stolen. There are clusters but you would be surprised to see that some of it is scattered across the city. What's interesting is that we are recovering cars stolen from other cities. Criminals are coming here, dropping off a stolen car, and stealing another car to go wherever they're going.

Felony arrests for adults have dropped and the felony arrests for juveniles have risen dramatically. Does that reflect a change in direction or emphasis?

We have focused on juvenile crime. When kids do not go to school, they get into trouble. Another challenge is dealing with kids who have nothing to do after school. We have three parks that offer sporting events but you know the financial challenges that the Boys and Girls Club has right now. The Boys and Girls Clubs is not open on weekends, as one would think. We need more after-school activities, more evening activities for the kids. And the only Boys and Girls Club we have in our city is closed on weekends. So what do the kids do? They just roam the streets, roam the parks. And that's when they're getting in trouble.

Our school resource officers have been very diligent. This is a population that we need to work with because as they grow from 12, 14, 18 and become adults, that's the ages more prone to getting in trouble. So we're starting some intervention early on. If we put our money and our resources there, we'll reduce our active criminal population. Locking people up is not the answer. Low-rider car clubs are helping us. They're willing to talk to kids, mentor kids, to steer them in the right direction so they don't get into trouble.

A big help -- the city has opened the library on Saturdays and Sundays. You go over there on the weekend and it's packed. Many of our kids don't have access to computers or the Internet. They do now with the library. They have movie nights there in a library room.

If you can get the kids involved in the performing arts and after- school activities, they're not going to be out on the streets being victimized or creating the problems.

Is the Boys and Girls Club funding issue at the local or national level?

Primarily it's at the local level. I'm on the board. Unfortunately, our golf tournament fundraiser with legendary football coach Don Coryell was rained out. We're quite dependent on donations. We do have a lot of fine sponsors. Of course, all the different organizations are competing for the same dollars. People don't realize that the National City Boys and Girls Club is the only alternative for some kids.

Have you filled the vacancies you once had in your sworn officer slots?

Oh, yes. Last year right before Proposition D, the sales tax increase, passed in June, we had 13 slots that were vacant. We were budgeted for 87 positions but we never could hit the 87 mark. Now we're budgeted for 92 and we have 91 positions filled. I think we have hired 24 new officers since last December. We have eight female officers, up from three. We promoted one, Estella Cordero, to sergeant, our first Latino female sergeant.

Is the anti-gang task force back up to full strength?

No, we're down two positions there and we're down one position in school resource officers. When people are out of training, we will be able to place them in those positions.

Your security street cameras are apparently so effective that the community wants more and merchants have offered to pay for them?

Yes. But before we rushed into it, I brought the community in first to help draft the policy instead of installing a street camera and doing the policy in a vacuum. We had the community help craft the policy first. We reviewed other cities' procedures. How long do you keep the information, who has access to it? SDG&E had to figure out how to bill for electricity use because there were no meters. We don't see the prostitution problems we saw before.

Have the cameras had any effect on crimes other than prostitution?

I believe so. We had problems with people breaking into cars, pedestrians being robbed. We don't see that any more. Now, it's more like a commercial establishment being robbed as opposed to somebody walking down the street. It doesn't happen as often as it used to.

Let's talk about community outreach. Years ago there was a very poor relationship between the department and the community.

We have more bilingual officers, a chief's advisory committee and a separate citizens' review board. The citizens' review board looks up citizen complaints of misconduct against the police. The chief's advisory committee is made up of residents, different people from the community, whom we call when we talk about policies and civic issues. What we can do to better serve the community.

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