"Lock your doors and load your guns"
San Bernardino City Attorney Jim Penman
A 50% increase in murders and a shrunken police force.
The gunshots ripped through a house party here, an hour before midnight on New Year's Eve, wounding three and killing one. It was a brutal, if fitting, cap to a year that left this city bloody and broke.
Five months after San Bernardino filed for bankruptcy - the third California city to seek Chapter 9 protections in 2012 - residents are confronting a transformed and more perilous city.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that after violent crime had dropped steadily for years, the homicide rate shot up more than 50 percent in 2012 as a shrinking police force struggled to keep order in a city long troubled by street gangs that have migrated from Los Angeles, 60 miles to the west.
"Lock your doors and load your guns," the city attorney, James Penman, said he routinely told worried residents asking how they can protect themselves.
This is one of the prices that cities often pay for falling into bankruptcy: the police force is cut, crime skyrockets and residents are left trying to ensure their own safety.
|"Lock your doors and load your guns"|
San Bernardino City Attorney Jim Penman told a town hall meeting that residents should lock their doors and load their guns because the bankrupt city’s police department would be unable to protect them.
San Bernardino, CA Second Poorest City in U.S.
A little over a year ago, this city's falling crime rate was a success story. An aggressive gang-intervention effort helped cut the homicide rate by nearly half since the 2005 peak, and in 2011 the program was held up by the National League of Cities as a model for other cities to follow.
But nearly all that progress was erased last year as San Bernardino collapsed under the weight of the same forces that have hit cities all over California and threaten to plunge still more of them into insolvency: high foreclosure rates that eroded the city's tax revenue, stubborn unemployment, and pension obligations that the city could no longer afford.
Stockton, which filed for bankruptcy in June, has followed a similarly grim path into insolvency, logging more homicides last year than ever before. In Vallejo, which filed for bankruptcy in 2008, cuts left the police force a third smaller, and the city became a hub for prostitution.
In San Bernardino, a city of about 213,000 people, dozens of officers have been laid off since the bankruptcy filing, leaving the police force with 264 officers, down from 350 in 2009. Those who remain call in sick more often, said Police Chief Robert Handy. Emergency response times are up. Nonemergency calls often get no response.
At the same time, as part of a plan to reduce the state prison population, nearly 4,000 criminals who would once have been sent to state prison have been put in the custody of San Bernardino County law enforcement authorities. Some have been released, putting more low-level criminals back on the streets of San Bernardino, Hardy said, and adding to the challenges already faced by the police.
"All of our crime is up, and the city has a very high crime rate per capita anyway," Handy said. "I can't police the city with much less than this. We're dangerously close as it is."
California city to file for bankruptcy
Violence increasingAs lawyers wrangle in court over San Bernardino's plan to cut $26 million from its budget and defer some of its pension payments, city officials say there is little more they can do to turn back the rising tide of violence.
Mayor Patrick Morris said he was even looking into eliminating the Police Department entirely, and relying on the county Sheriff's Department for law enforcement, which could save money. Many other city services, he said, have already been cut "almost into nonexistence."
"The parks department is shredded, the libraries similarly," Morris said. "My office is down to nobody. I've got literally no one left." (Morris' son now serves as a volunteer chief of staff for the mayor's office.)
With the city unable to provide, residents have begun to take more responsibility. Volunteers help with park maintenance, work at the city animal shelter and, in some cases, even replace broken streetlights.
Neighborhood watch groups have also grown in number in the last year, as they did in Vallejo and Stockton after those cities filed for bankruptcy. There are now more than 100 groups and counting, up from 76 last year. Handy said the groups would play a "huge part" in fighting crime, especially given the cut to the police.
In less affluent parts of the city, though, community groups have had less influence. On the West Side, traditionally a gang-controlled area, one resident, Elisa Cortez, said that almost all the neighbors on her block had recently moved in, and that she did not know them.
On a recent Saturday, Cortez repeatedly called the city about a stray dog that lay dead on the sidewalk just outside her house. No one came. "We can't get a hold of anybody to get rid of it," she said.
Salary doubtsThe city is still doing regular trash collection - at least for now - if not dead animal removal. But after 15 years driving a garbage truck in the city, Carlos Teran does not know if the city will have enough money to pay him next month. His payroll is now month-to-month, he said.
Teran owes more than $200,000 on a house in Bloods gang territory that is now worth closer to $50,000, he said.
Up the street, a tree-lined avenue with views of the nearby foothills, four candles marked the spot where a gang member was killed in a drive-by shooting. Across the street, metal thieves have gutted one of the foreclosed homes that dot the neighborhood, ripping air conditioners and electrical boxes off the walls long before the police responded.
"It's scary," said Teran's wife, Elizabeth. "You hear gunshots. You have to watch your surroundings."
Some of Teran's co-workers, even the ones who have not been laid off, have left San Bernardino. The Terans, who both grew up in the city, have considered doing the same, walking away from their underwater mortgage and moving their five children to a place where they can leave the house wearing their blue soccer shirts without fear.
But they have decided to stay. Teran is the block captain for a neighborhood watch group that also cleans up a park every month. Like other residents in the rougher parts of San Bernardino, he said he knew the area well enough to feel safe here.
"I know people say this is a shameful city, one of the worst places to live, one of the worst cities to raise your kids," Teran said. "But down deep in my heart, I love this city. And one day it will turn around."
Read more: San Francisco Chronicle