Can The Robbery Wave Be Stopped?

The First of Two Parts.
By Chris Lavin

LA MESA – City police officer Gary Moss was driving by a 7-11 on Baltimore Drive in La Mesa in the early morning hours of Dec. 12 when he saw a man carrying a backpack walking quickly from the store.

Something about it looked suspicious so Moss did what cops do. He followed his instincts and followed the man. The man stopped, then tossed his backpack and ran.

Moments later Moss’ dispatcher sent out a call that the 7-11 had been robbed. In the backpack, Moss found money and a gun and enough information to trace the man to an apartment on nearby Cowles Mountain Boulevard.

Just like on the TV cop shows, the bad guy was arrested and the community was safer.

The truth about that incident, however, is that this kind of arrest is a rare event in the police world.

“I’ve been in the business 26 years and I can tell you I’ve only had a handful of incidents in which you catch the person red-handed,’’ La Mesa Police chief Ed Aceves said. “It is really rare.’’

In fact, in November and December of 2011, La Mesa was undergoing what appeared to the public to be an epidemic of armed robberies. Gas stations, ice cream stores, convenience stores, banks. One after another, night after night, or so it seemed, knocked off by brazen young men who flashed a gun, took the cash and beat it down a nearby interstate. The robberies, previously more common in tougher neighborhoods and all  night establishments, had moved into good neighborhoods and, in some cases, like the ice cream store hit, into broad daylight.

Police will tell you that a robber can be a mile away for every minute it takes officers to arrive on a scene and in most of these cases the suspects were, in fact, long gone when the cops arrived.

As local nerves jangled, there was much talk in the town coffee shops about the incidents and the apparent inability of the police to respond. The questions and comments were familiar: Do we have enough cops on the street? Do they spend too much of their time doing paperwork? Why are they spending all their time on traffic tickets when robbers are getting away?

Of course, the answers to all these questions are neither clear nor simple and, like police work itself, the answers require a mix of science, politics and subjective judgment.

Some people believe a small police force would be better off merged with a larger institution, like the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department which handles patrol duties on a contract basis for Santee, Lemon Grove and other communities in the East County, and can instantly call on a vast array of resources across the county to combat crime.

Yet control of the administration of police services is the primary job of a city government and neither the La Mesa politicians nor their constituents are quick to give that power to a more distant authority. "We are a full service city,'' La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid puts it simply. "We are not a contract city.''

The savings and efficiencies of regional policing have never been clear enough to offset the loss of local people controlling their own public safety services.

La Mesa, in fact, has invested in its Police Department as the city has grown.

In 1965 when the city’s population was 35,913, La Mesa had 34 sworn police officers and 4 non-sworn employees. Today, with a population at nearly 57,000, there are 68 sworn officers and 30 civilian employees of the department. 

According to department statistics that means there are now 1.11 sworn officers per thousand residents compared to .95 officers per thousand residents in 1965.

But more has changed in La Mesa than just its population since 1965.

While growing from a city of 35,000 to nearly 60,000, La Mesa is surrounded by other growing communities as well. West La Mesa, which borders a rougher part of the City of San Diego, may be better described as urban than the suburban, bedroom community La Mesans see the community overall. The number of calls for police help have grown exponentially as well. La Mesa is not as sleepy a town as it once way.

“That has changed drastically even just in the time I’ve been here,’’ Aceves said. “We have many more calls for service. Our officers don’t have a lot of hang around time.’’

And with trolley lines, buses, major highways and arterial roads crossing La Mesa, the rapid growth of the region has clearly increased the velocity and complexity of what a police officer faces today.

Armed with in-car computer displays, tazers, guns and scanning license plate technology, patrol officers can start to look like crime fighting techno-administrators, modern-day robocops asked to scan the town as they drive through enforcing categories of crime which are chronicled in detailed ticks on statistical charts.

Yet the officers are clearly torn between the needs of the beat, the bureaucracy of paperwork, court appearances and the urgent demands of backing up fellow officers. On any given night, criminal events or a laborious arrest process can mean entire sectors of the city go unpatrolled for hours. 

Spend a few hours on the beat, and a truer picture of what is asked of a patrol officer today and what La Mesa gets for its investment emerges.

Tomorrow: Part II: Saving Armando.

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Comment by Jenny While on January 25, 2012 at 9:28am

Less administrative staff means more time the officers have to spend doing "non-policing" activities.  You don't want that. 

Comment by Lisa Moore on January 24, 2012 at 1:40pm

Great article....looking forward to the next segment.  Makes it clearer on the operation of the police dept. in LM

Comment by Ian I Shiff on January 24, 2012 at 11:09am

great article Chris

Comment by Ron Hynum on January 24, 2012 at 11:08am

Maybe we should have less administrative staff and more officers on the beat!

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