SAN JOSE -- The late-summer bloodshed that grabbed headlines and city leaders' and residents' attention has ebbed some in recent weeks, but worries about crime in San Jose -- once crowned America's Safest Big City -- continue to roil City Hall.
In an election year, with the balance of City Council power at stake, city leaders and the powerful police union are in a tug-of-war over public perception of crime in San Jose -- how much it has risen and whether city policy is to blame.
The council has scheduled a 7 p.m. Tuesday "study session" at City Hall on "police response to recent crimes and gang activity." At 6:30 that same night, the police union and other city labor groups are holding a "crime-prevention meeting" in East San Jose offering residents tips on "how to protect your family and your property." Union members were going door to door over the weekend urging residents to attend. Don't expect quite the same message at each meeting.
San Jose Police Officers' Association President Jim Unland said the neighborhood meeting aims to empower residents amid a crime wave he said is spurred by police layoffs and a department exodus driven by pay and benefit cuts. He dismisses the City Hall meeting as mere spin.
"What's to study?" Unland said. "The council majority cut too many cops, and crime is skyrocketing in San Jose. It's not rocket science. So on Tuesday, instead of sitting and listening to politicians huff and puff about how
Councilwoman Rose Herrera, a key ally in Mayor Chuck Reed's quest to curb costly pensions for police and other city workers who is fighting for her re-election, hopes the City Hall meeting will separate crime facts from what she suggests is a fear campaign being waged by unions backing her opponent.
"I'm concerned about public safety. We want to get a handle on the numbers, the statistics. Politics should not be involved in it," Herrera said.
The backdrop for the dispute is Measure B, Reed's controversial ballot measure to reduce pension benefits whose costs have tripled in a decade and helped drive multimillion-dollar budget deficits that led to the police department's first layoffs last year.
Police and other unions are suing to block the measure, which voters overwhelmingly approved in June. They argue it violates their vested benefit rights.
Reed said leaving employee benefit costs unchecked would force the city to cut even more police officers and other workers to balance its budget.
But cuts in officer pay and benefits have taken a toll on morale, and a rash of departures has left the already thinly staffed police department below its budgeted levels. There's no dispute the city has seen a spike in crime, though whether that is a temporary surge or a long-term trend is debatable. San Jose by the end of August had recorded 33 homicides, compared to 29 at the same point in 2011, putting the city on pace to surpass last year's total of 39 homicides, a 15-year high.
Police Chief Chris Moore's report to the council for Tuesday's meeting acknowledges that major violent and property crimes in the first half of 2012 are up 23 percent over the same period last year. The report says those crimes "fluctuate over time" but have decreased since the 2006-07 budget year.
Given the recent crime spike, the chief's report states that "it is unclear at this point if the crime activity in 2012 exceeds that experienced in 2006-07." The chief also said the department, budgeted for 1,109 sworn officers, is down to 1,051 due to vacancies, and an additional 56 officers are out on disability or long-term leave, leaving fewer than 1,000 cops available to police a city of nearly 1 million.
The department has been recruiting and expects to hire 61 out of 579 qualified applicants. An additional 331 applicants are going through background checks.
The chief's report said that with reduced staffing, the city has not been meeting its targeted six-minute response time to life-threatening calls, and that efforts to respond to those calls have come at the expense of calls that may involve injury and property damage.
Herrera, who faces a November runoff, questioned the police union's motives in scheduling a meeting on crime at the same time as the council study session and a day before she had planned her own neighborhood meeting. Herrera suggests the timing is a union tactic to intimidate city officials.
But Unland said the union-sponsored meeting is just "the first of several meetings we will be conducting in areas that have seen large increases in crime."
"When a 70-year old woman gets carjacked at knifepoint in broad daylight at the local Target store in Evergreen," Unland said, referring to an Aug. 25 armed robbery at a shopping center, "it's time to stop the chatter and take some action."
Two meetings are planned on crime in San Jose:
San Jose City Council study session on police response to recent crimes, 7 p.m. Tuesday, San Jose City Hall Council Chamber, 200 E. Santa Clara St.
Crime-prevention meeting sponsored by San Jose Police Officers' Association, San Jose Firefighters and other city unions, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, YMCA, 1975 S. White Road.