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Nearly all major crimes increased last year in San Diego, police say

San Diego Police Department officers make a traffic stop in June 2020.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The biggest spikes were in hate crimes and vehicle thefts. The violent crime rate was the city’s highest in nearly a decade.

The city of San Diego saw increases in nearly every category of major crime in 2021, police officials said, mirroring a trend in other large cities across the nation.

Police leaders presented the findings to the City Council this week.

Across the city, crime increased about 13 percent, according to the latest figures. The year’s violent crime rate of 4.2 crimes per thousand residents was the highest the city has seen in nearly a decade, and the property crime rate of 19.6 crimes per thousand residents was the highest since 2016, department officials said.

Vehicle thefts spiked 25 percent compared with 2020 figures, and rapes increased by 18 percent. Aggravated assaults and thefts also saw double-digit jumps, while burglary and homicides rose a couple of percentage points each. Many of the increases persisted when comparing 2021 with 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted widespread lockdowns.

Hate crimes increased 77 percent last year, police said, a surge that alarmed council members.

Robbery was the only major crime to see a decrease, falling about 10 percent compared with 2020.

Police Chief David Nisleit said the havoc wrought by the pandemic likely fueled some of last year’s increases, both locally and nationally.

“It’s COVID. It’s people being out of work, kids being out of school, just the anger and the frustration levels of everything over the last two years,” Nisleit said. “I think we need to acknowledge the last two years have been difficult on everybody.”

Other big cities, such as Los Angeles and New York, reported similar increases last year.

“Police departments across the nation are combating rises in crime, and although San Diego historically ranks as one of the safest big cities, our city is also seeing an increase in crime,” Nisleit said.

Still, some experts say crime in San Diego is at near-historic lows compared with rates in the 1980s and ‘90s. Rates for violent and property crimes have held fairly steady over the past decade and, despite the increases in 2021, current crime rates are comparable to the late 1950s, when the city’s population was much smaller, police officials said.

In addition to most major crimes, several specific types of crime also increased.

Hate crimes jumped from 26 in 2020 to 46 in 2021, and more than half were racially motivated, police said. Anti-Black bias accounted for 10 cases, while anti-Asian and anti-Hispanic bias accounted for four cases each. Anti-White bias was involved in two cases, and five cases involved bias against someone who was multiracial or some other race.

Bias against someone’s sexual orientation accounted for more than a quarter of hate crimes, and religious bias made up 20 percent. Of the nine religion-oriented hate crimes, seven were anti-Semitic in nature.

“As a member of the LGBTQ community, I am concerned,” said Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell. “Just because equal rights for the LGBTQ community are advancing quickly, the reality is that homophobia is still impacting us, from microaggressions all the way to hate crimes described in this report.”

Overall, crimes of domestic violence increased about 4 percent, but domestic violence crimes involving firearms increased nearly 70 percent.

Gang-related crimes increased about 8 percent, and gang homicides increased 70 percent, from 10 in 2020 to 17 in 2021.

“We saw a lot of shootings in the summer months, and that was citywide,” Nisleit said. “Every command is seeing gun violence.”

To address rising crime, the Police Department recently added a sixth homicide investigation team and a new “ghost gun” investigation team. The department also is leaning into intelligence-led policing strategies that help zero in on specific crimes and offenders and regularly participates in walks with community groups in various neighborhoods.

The department also partnered with LGBTQ and Asian American and Pacific Islander businesses to designate the establishments as safe zones to report hate crimes.

Nisleit said the city’s homicide rate remains one of the lowest among the nation’s largest cities and highlighted his department’s homicide clearance rate of about 75 percent. Across the country, homicide clearance rates were around 60 percent in 2019, according to FBI statistics.

Police officials said that of 10 of the country’s largest cities, San Diego had the fewest number of officers per 1,000 residents, at 1.3.

After the department’s presentation, City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera urged the city to invest in strategies designed to prevent crime and violence from happening in the first place. He brought up reducing substance abuse, confronting the city’s gun problem, reducing harmful effects of the justice process and better engaging and supporting young people as examples — all things that have been discussed before by Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe, Elo-Rivera said.

Both Elo-Rivera and Montgomery Steppe noted that many young people lost access to their social and emotional support systems during the pandemic with the closure of schools and cancellation of sports and other extracurricular activities. That may have led to an increase in crime among young people, Elo-Rivera said.

“We should also note what did not coincide with increases in crime,” Elo-Rivera said. “There were no budget cuts to police spending in fiscal year 2021-2022. In fact, the police budget increased by millions. In other words, there’s no reason to believe that additional increases in spending on policing will solve this by itself.”

Nisleit acknowledged that “we need to work all together. It’s not just law enforcement, it’s our community, it’s our elected officials, to make certain that we’re driving down this violence.” ◆