SAN JOSE -- With a month to go in 2012, San Jose has reached an unenviable milestone. A young man's shooting death late Friday night brought this year's homicide tally to 43 -- matching a two-decade high.
Amid the rising death toll, police renewed their criticism of Mayor Chuck Reed's belt-tightening, which has helped lead to the city's most thinly staffed police force in decades.
"The officers are just incredibly frustrated," said Sgt. Jim Unland, president of the San Jose Police Officers' Association. "You've got homicide investigators sleeping in the unit, working 40 hours straight."
Reed, who on Saturday was in Washington, D.C., after meeting with congressional and White House officials about pension reform and other fiscal matters, said he shared the union's desire to beef up the force. At the same time, he noted that union officials have sued to block Measure B, the pension-reduction measure San Jose voters overwhelmingly backed in June.
Reed called pension changes, along with a 10 percent pay cut officers and other city workers agreed to take last year, bitter medicine "to save the city from insolvency."
San Jose has long been lauded as one of the safest big cities in America. While it's still considered relatively safe, last year the city suffered through a dramatic spike in homicides, mirroring a Bay Area trend.
Driven by domestic-violence slayings and rising gang violence, San Jose saw 41 killings in 2011, double the previous year's tally. And 2012 has been even more troubling for a community not accustomed to such recurring violence.
According to police, Friday night's victim was shot about 11:33 p.m. on the 900 block of Pacific Avenue, near the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and West San Carlos Street.
Police said preliminary indications are that he was 17 years old and that the killing was gang-related. Officials at the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner's Office said police had asked that the victim's identity -- and any details of his death -- not be released.
Police Sgt. Jason Dwyer offered a sparse account, saying that "a suspect or suspects approached the victim and shot him." The unknown assailants fled, and the teen was pronounced dead at the scene.
Dwyer added that a motive is not yet known for the shooting, which occurred on a residential street. He said the killing marked the city's 16th gang-related homicide of 2012; there were 18 last year.
Reed's critics say his relentless focus on the city's fast-rising personnel costs have demoralized public safety workers and others in City Hall.
The number of sworn officers has shrunk from about 1,400 in 2008 to roughly 1,050, owing to a combination of layoffs, early retirements and departures for better-paying jobs. San Jose's force is authorized to have about 50 more police officers, but the department has been hard-pressed to fill the spots; 44 cadets are now attending the department's first academy in nearly three years, but they're not expected be on the street until July at the earliest.
And Unland said fed-up officers are leaving faster than the city can bring in new ones.
"Even if they rolled back the pay cuts and Measure B tomorrow, the damage is done," said Unland, a 24-year veteran of the force. Still, he said the union is fighting the ballot measure in court because attorneys he's consulted believe it's illegal.
Unland also noted that budget battles led Chief Chris Moore to announce his retirement next month after less than two years on the job.
Reed said the city has "increased the Police Department budget by nearly $100 million" over the last decade. Yet head count has continued to shrink because pension and other costs have made each officer more expensive.
Reed says he'll use the savings from Measure B to hire more police officers next year. On the other hand, he said, "If the size of the Police Department affected the rate of homicides, San Francisco would have less homicide than we do."
An 11-day period in August helped push San Jose toward the record, with eight slayings marking one of the bloodiest stretches in the city's history.
Meanwhile, property crimes such as burglaries and auto thefts have spiked, with stretched police acknowledging that they've had to give such crimes lower priority.
"When we have a department that no longer has a burglary unit, that sends a message to crooks," said San Jose Councilman Xavier Campos, part of the council's shrinking pro-labor wing.
While Reed and his allies cast the city's fiscal straits as a choice between adding police officers or cutting libraries and community centers, Campos said the city could have afforded both had the council voted in August to put a sales-tax measure on the ballot.
That vote deadlocked amid concern a tax hike could hurt the local economy.
Unland, for his part, said he's given up on City Hall for now.
"Maybe there's something we can do with the new mayor," he said. "Right now, it's court for the next two years."
Staff writers Eric Kurhi and Robert Salonga contributed to this report. Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638.
Anyone with information about Friday night's homicide can call San Jose police at 408-277-5283. Those wishing to remain anonymous can call 408-947-7867.