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Despite elevated crime levels during the first six months of 2021, San Diego County remains one of the safest in the country, according to SANDAG. Courtesy photo
Despite elevated crime levels during the first six months of 2021, San Diego County remains one of the safest in the U.S., according to a SANDAG crime analyst. Courtesy photo
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Sheriff, analysts shed light on crime surge in SANDAG’s mid-year report

REGION — At first glance, SANDAG’s latest mid-year crime report appears to show significant spikes in both property and violent crime across San Diego County.

And while the report showed substantial increases in crime rates countywide compared to last year, crime analysts and law enforcement believe the crime rates have returned to expected levels due to several factors, including state law reclassifications, COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, social justice movements, law enforcement morale and changes to booking policies, among others.

Despite elevated crime levels during the first six months of 2021, San Diego County remains one of the safest in the country, according to Cindy Burke, director of research at SANDAG.

The report published last month shows increases from last year in most property and violent crimes in North County coastal cities, such as Carlsbad, Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas. But for many cities, these increases are equal to or lower than crime rates in 2017.

For example, in 2017, Carlsbad’s property crime rate was 17.95% before it decreased to 14.65% last year and then rose to 17.94% during the first half of ’21— nearly the same property crime rate as four years earlier, according to the report.

Capt. Dustin Lopez, of the San Diego Sheriff’s North Coastal Station, told The Coast News the increase is more noticeable largely because last year’s crime rates were extremely low due to mandatory stay-at-home orders and business closures related to COVID-19.

“Because people weren’t moving around, people weren’t going into work or going into school, obviously restaurants and bars were closed, so we just didn’t have the movement of people,” Lopez said.

Burke agreed and noted that some “opportunistic” crimes, such as burglary, theft, and sexual assaults, were likely down in 2020 because more people were at home.

Increase or decrease?

The SANDAG mid-year crime report used an FBI Index rate adjusted per 1,000 people. According to those metrics and compared with the same time last year, the city of Del Mar saw an overall crime increase of 23%, Encinitas increased 39% and Solana Beach jumped 105%.

However, when compared to 2017, Del Mar and Solana Beach saw decreases in their overall crime rates of 45% and 11%, respectively, with Encinitas seeing a 4% increase. Reports of domestic violence cases in nearly every North County city, with the exception of Escondido, Oceanside and Vista, have risen to levels higher than reported in 2017.

In Del Mar, since there was no full-scale county fair this year, the Sheriff’s Department believes this lowered the city’s crime rates from previous years.

“Del Mar historically sees an increase of crime during the month of June when there is a far greater amount of people in town for the fair,” Lopez said. “Del Mar is such a small community so when you’re bringing in hundreds of thousands of people into that town during that period of time it obviously increases crime.”

One of the biggest jumps in property crimes across the region is the theft of auto parts and accessories. Those crimes have spiked 99% since 2017 and 86% since last year. One of the most popular thefts is catalytic converters, which can cost between $1,000 and $3000 to replace. Car thefts are also up 21% since 2017.

Burke said there is no information nationally as to why motor vehicle and accessory thefts are on the rise.

According to the SANDAG report, there have also been small increases in violent crime in Encinitas, with the city seeing a 31% increase based on the adjusted FBI Index rate. Solana Beach saw a negligible increase and Del Mar a slight decrease in their violent crime rates from 2017.

“That’s going from 51 to 67 instances of violent crime in Encinitas,” Lopez said. “SANDAG defines violent crime as homicides, rape, robberies and aggravated assault. We attribute it to the aggravated assault increase. Due to the vast array of reasons that people assault each other, there is no clear trend that we can identify. It’s definitely aggravated assaults that are making those numbers trend higher.”

Lopez believes bars reopening and more people venturing out of their homes following last year’s lockdowns also play a factor in some of the increases. The Sheriff’s Department recommends local residents take some basic precautions to deter crime in their areas.

“The biggest thing is just being aware of your surroundings,” Lopez said. “Where you’re parking your vehicle — if it’s in a lit area if you can observe it. Obviously, sometimes it’s a monetary reason why people don’t do it, but if you can install cameras, any of that stuff deters crime. And if it doesn’t deter crime it provides evidence for the sheriff’s department to look into as far as solving a lot of these crimes.”

Law changes

Changes in state law, such as Proposition 47 in 2014, which reclassified certain felonies as misdemeanors with lesser penalties, also had an impact on crime data, according to Burke.

For example, felony theft in California was reduced to a misdemeanor for $950 or less of property. After that time, larceny increased by 9%, according to a 2018 report from the Public Policy Institute of California.

Media reports across the state have also documented that local businesses are often not reporting those crimes, some of which are reduced to just a citation, for various reasons.

One of the problems with crime data reports is the number of different variables that go into each year’s statistics, according to SDSU professor Paul Kaplan.

“Crime rate reporting always has noise in the data, that (creates) considerable error,” Kaplan explained. “Because it’s the same kind of problem … the changes are thought to be pretty reliable.”

But Kaplan said it’s difficult to judge any of last year’s numbers because so many factors come into play, such as the pandemic, social justice protests, morale with law enforcement and booking policies — all of which criminologists will need time to analyze.

Kaplan said the focus should be more on the raw data rather than percentages, which can make it appear as if crime is out of control when in reality, the changes are fairly small in either direction.

“These are all issues criminologists are trying to figure out in a time of rapid and major change in criminal justice related to the big social movements, the political landscape and COVID,” Kaplan said. “I think everybody is struggling about how to make a claim about the crime rate one way or the other.”