ESCONDIDO — Jennifer McCormick has resided in Escondido for about 20 years. With two children, ages 8 and 10, she has learned the hard way that in the city, some areas are safer than others.
Among other things, she has had her car broken into and purse stolen, witnessed a mugging in broad daylight at Grape Day Park, saw a SWAT team break into a unit in her housing complex and had friends who heard gunshots in a neighborhood adjacent to Centre City Drive. Various crime hot spots around the city have motivated McCormick and her family to move to myriad parts of the city over the years, settling recently for the remote, but safe, northern edge of Escondido.
“There are several problems in the city and one is homelessness and another is drugs,” said McCormick, who works as a middle school teacher. “The other is gangs. Those three elements are a problem. Prior to me living in Escondido, I actually had a friend that lived in Escondido and we would come to her house and she’d say, ‘Oh yeah, there’s drug deals at the house right next door.’”
Neighborhood crime data broken up by U.S. Census Block and U.S. Census Tract from the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) show that burglary and theft, sex-related crimes, assaults, illegal use or trafficking of narcotics and other crimes categorized as Part II crimes by the Federal Bureau of Investigation persisted in certain areas in the city in 2018, particularly along the outskirts of the downtown core.
On the whole, 11,146 crimes were committed in Escondido in 2018, according to the data. The number is far higher than the city’s inland neighbors immediately to the west in San Marcos and Vista, which had 780 and 1,420 crimes, respectively, in 2018, according to SANDAG data. While Escondido crime decreased by 8% between 2014-2018, violent crime increased 4% over that same time period, according to SANDAG’s data.
In particular, 13 main corridors in the city jumped in Escondido for having the most crime. Most of them sat along the outskirts of the city’s downtown core, with others on the city’s near east side along the Escondido Creek and Escondido Creek Bikeway.
Many thefts also ensued at the Westfield North County mall.
The data shows 299 cases of theft occurring in the Census block, which includes the mall, in 2018. Those include nine burglaries, 37 thefts from vehicles and 11 armed robberies. The police arrested 109 others for shoplifting of items worth $400 or more, while arresting 72 more for shoplifting of items worth $200-$400.
North Broadway Avenue, which runs in front of City Hall and Grape Day Park and intersects with the city’s historic downtown main street at Grand Avenue, also made the list, with 187 crimes last year. Of those, 17 were for narcotics and another 17 of them were for theft — one an armed robbery and another a nighttime burglary attempt.
Two other spots along the Escondido Creek Bikeway also made the list, at the 500 Block of East Valley Parkway and the 1200-1300 Block of East Valley Parkway, totaling 96 crimes for the year.
Lt. Chris Lick, the public information officer for the Escondido Police Department, said that much of the crime in the city has a correlation with densely populated areas. Because of the prevalence of theft, Lick advised residents and visitors not to leave valuables in their cars. SANDAG data shows that property crimes, though, have decreased 10% since 2014.
In 2018, 357 burglaries took place, as did 1,891 cases of larceny, up 6% from 2017’s 1,780 larceny offenses. That amounted to a value of $6.99 million in property crimes, up 15% from 2014.
“If I had to emphasize to the residents of any city, it would be this very thing: vehicle thefts are crimes of opportunity,” said Lick. “And these folks, these criminals will go in parking lots and that’s where a lot of these crimes take place: in parking lots, whether it’s at businesses or apartment complexes. And if there’s a purse or cell phone, or an iPad or a computer in those cars, they’re going to take and break.”
Responding to crime, Lick said that in recent years, the city police have begun an initiative called the Neighborhood Transformation Project (NTP). NTP is a multi-agency approach to tackle crime at its root causes as part of Escondido’s broader neighborhood revitalization efforts. It has existed since 2013 and runs on two-year cycles for the areas it focuses on.
“Basically, what they do is they target a specific area in the city that is a hotspot, and they actually work that whole hotspot for about two years,” Lick said. “So, they’ll recognize the hotspot, they’ll define it and they’ll say, ‘This is the area,’ and they’ll say, ‘This is the roads and within those roads, this is the area that we want to focus on.’”
Beyond the police department, NTP teams up with city staffers from Code Enforcement, Public Works, Neighborhood Services, the City Attorney and City Manager’s Offices and community-based organizations in an effort to spawn “safer communities by focusing our efforts on environmental transformation, one neighborhood at a time,” reads a statement on the NTP website given by Escondido Police Department Chief Craig Carter.
For the current cycle, NTP has its aims on the Mission Avenue, Centre City Drive, Grand Avenue and North Broadway in the city’s historic downtown and the area immediately north of it. That region saw 54 narcotics arrests and another 54 thefts or armed robberies in 2018. In total, this area had 537 crimes last year.
Lick said that NTP fits under the banner of the broader Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving (COPPS) program undertaken by the police department.
Lick added that the police department chose this approach due to the complex set of reasons as to why crimes happen to begin with, noting that “there is no one factor.” He added, though, that the department is on a constant quest to try to answer that question.
“What we do here is we have a criminal intelligence unit,” said Lick. “And they’re looking for crime trends. So they are constantly crunching data for numbers, looking for trends, looking for people doing the same thing, or perhaps one person doing the same thing in a multitude of locations.”
That information, Lick said, is then passed to police officers on patrol as a means of actionable intelligence to “cool off” crime hotspots.
Yet despite issues with crime in Escondido, McCormick remains drawn to the city for a number of reasons. Chiefly among them: its comparatively lower cost of housing — or what she referred to as “more house for a lower price” — as well as its diversity and its natural beauty.
“I love Escondido: it’s home. The people are friendly and I like the mix of people,” said McCormick. “Because there are cities where you can have just one socioeconomic, but I feel like Escondido is just a crazy mix of different socioeconomics and different races.”
Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based reporter covering Escondido and San Marcos. He works in a full-time capacity for The Real News Network, an online broadcast news ouetlet, covering climate change. He has worked as a staff investigative reporter for the publications Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News and as an investigative reporter for the climate news website DeSmog.com.
A native of Wisconsin and graduate of University of Wisconsin, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and nine marathons under his belt. He also has served on the film screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.