During the Vietnam War, Operation Phoenix was a CIA-sponsored effort to win the hearts and minds of enemy sympathizers—by killing them. Few American spy programs were as bloody, or as rich in euphemism. Under the “program” (assassination campaign), some 20,000 to 40,000 “noncombatant Viet Cong” (civilians) were “neutralized” (killed or imprisoned) by “covert operatives” (spies and mercenaries).
Forty years later, a second Operation Phoenix was born—this one the brainchild of San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris. Unveiled in November 2005 while he was running for the mayor’s seat, Morris’ plan called for a multi-agency campaign to reduce crime in the city by “neutralizing” criminals, enforcing “quality-of-life” ordinances and giving the youth of San Bernardino something else to do besides robbing and killing.
Whether Morris was aware of the CIA’s Phoenix when he gave his program the same name is unknown—the mayor didn’t return repeated calls for comment. What is certain is that Operation Phoenix was a political masterstroke for the former Superior Court judge. On November 26, 2005—the day before Morris rolled out Operation Phoenix—he was locked in a heated runoff with City Attorney Jim Penman. On November 28—the day after—Morris was coasting to victory. Phoenix played like a divine choir to the citizenry of poor, bleeding San Bernardino, and a quick look at the state of affairs at the time explains why:
At the end of 2005, the city was wrapping up the most violent year in its history. Its crime rate was double that of the national average—higher than L.A.’s, higher than in any other city in San Bernardino county. More than 2,500 violent crimes were reported in San Bernardino, including a record 58 homicides, earning the city the ranking of “18th Most Dangerous City in the U.S.” by Morgan Quitno Press, a Kansas firm that annually compiles such stats. The yearlong carnage reached its nadir with the death of 11-year-old Mynisha Crenshaw, shot in her Del Rosa neighborhood home by, authorities say, gang-bangers out for vengeance.
Operation Phoenix, candidate Morris insisted, would change all that. Give him the mayor’s office, he exhorted, and he’d dramatically increase law enforcement spending and add 40 officers immediately to the San Bernardino Police Department. Give him the helm, and he’d crack down on high-crime areas, increase the use of gang injunctions and coordinate efforts with other agencies. Give him the helm, and he’d attack the seeds of criminal activity by building a youth center, step up property code enforcement and create a first-time homebuyers program in order to “transform San Bernardino from a city of renters to a city of owners.”
The voters, scared silly by the year’s bloodletting, readily gave Morris the helm.
On June 10, the mayor officially launched Operation Phoenix, complete with an imposing red and black logo strikingly similar to the flag of Albania. A one-square-mile residential area bordered by Baseline and 16th streets, Sierra Way and Waterman Avenue—described by officials as the most crime-ridden, blighted and impoverished neighborhood in the city—was selected as a proving ground for Morris’ social theories. Residents within the “Operation Phoenix Corridor,” long accustomed to neglect, suddenly found themselves awash in public scrutiny.
Cops from the San Bernardino Police Department, Sheriff’s Department and CHP poured into the 20-block area, arresting gang-bangers, dope dealers, pot smokers, taggers, prostitutes, “aggressive” panhandlers, parole violators, curfew violators—anyone who happened to be standing on the wrong side of the law when the squad cars screeched to a stop. The city attorney’s office went to work expanding crime-free zones and gang and prostitution injunctions, preventing parolees, gangsters and hookers from visiting proscribed areas.
“Our officers were proactive in addressing the problems [in the corridor],” says San Bernardino Police Chief Michael Billdt. “They maintained high-visibility patrols, contacting people on the street and talking to them. If they observed criminal behavior, they detained suspects and investigated them. I think the fact that we had a reduction in crime shows that the program is working.”
Other departments and agencies got into the act. City code-compliance officers ticketed property owners for everything from overgrown lawns to piled-up trash to broken windows, while fire department inspectors handed out hazard citations like their jobs depended on it. The county housing authority informed landlords in writing that they’d be blackballed from the Section 8 subsidy program if they didn’t get rid of “criminal” tenants—a key component of Morris’ Phoenix operational plan that translates to evicting entire families if just one member runs afoul of the law. The Department of Children’s Services removed kids from parents who were found neglectful.
As outlined by Morris and Billdt, Operation Phoenix takes a three-pronged approach to fighting crime, the first being “suppression.” Acting on the other two, “intervention” and “prevention,” social workers, counselors and gang-intervention experts descended on the target corridor to try to steer “at-risk” kids away from street crime. Perhaps the most ambitious element of this effort was the creation of the Operation Phoenix Center, a Parks and Recreation Department-run youth recreational facility. Located down the street from the San Bernardino DMV on North Waterman Avenue, the gated compound might easily be mistaken for a parole office if not for the flag-of-Albania Phoenix logo posted near the entrance.
Within weeks, Morris and his community cheerleading squad—the San Bernardino Sun newspaper—commenced a near-endless round of congratulations for a job well done. In story after story with headlines such as “Operation Phoenix Makes Strides,” “A Sense of Hope Emerges” and “From Havoc to Hope,” Morris and other officials were given venue—free and unchallenged—to boast of “violent crime down 30 percent and overall crime down 50 percent,” and to make remarkably grandiose statements like “There are answers to this riddle called crime, and we have found them.”
Indeed, the immediate results of the operation provided a lot to crow about. Statistics provided by the San Bernardino Police Department showed a marked drop in crime, both in the Phoenix corridor and the city at large. The youth center was an unqualified hit among residents, with an average of 40 neighborhood kids visiting it every day. Under the increased vigilance of code compliance officers, the test neighborhood began to assume, if not an air of hospitality, at least one of habitability.
“I think it’s working,” says John Walton, a 34-year-old San Bernardino resident. “At least kids can walk down the street now—there’s been no murders for a while. Back before, brothers were dropping, seemed like every day.”
Walton’s comments are telling. Under the heavy hand of Operation Phoenix, he and several other residents interviewed for this article say they feel safer, that things have gotten better, that criminals are on the run, that the epidemic of murder is over—for now, at least. These beliefs are supported again and again by city and police officials, reporters and editorial page editors, when residents open their local newspapers.
But here’s the thing: There have been murders in San Bernardino—quite a few of them, actually—since Operation Phoenix began. They just haven’t occurred within the 20-block corridor.
Like the floatation cushion under an airplane seat, Phoenix provided residents the illusion of safety. While police report crimes in most categories are down, homicides remain woefully high—53 at the end of December (thought Billdt insists six of those were justifiable killings). Even accepting the official “crime is down across the board” line requires something of a leap of faith, given an ongoing lawsuit against the city by former San Bernardino Police records clerk Jennifer Carrigan, who claims she was frequently told by her superiors to falsify crime data. Though Carrigan says the book-cooking occurred under a previous administration, the present leadership’s flat denial of her claims gives us no reason to believe the alleged practice has changed.
It may also be no coincidence that, while Walton feels safer, residents in neighboring cities do not. Violent crime skyrocketed in San Bernardino County last year, so much so that U.S Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recently decided to include the county in a federal study to explain the increase. Redlands Police Chief Jim Bueermann, whose city saw a 35 percent spike in violent crime in November alone, publicly expressed concern that Operation Phoenix is pushing criminals into his community.
Bueermann’s fears about the phenomenon, called “displacement” by law enforcement, were confirmed by no less than Billdt himself.
“Any time that you have a police agency identifying proactive strategies to reduce violent crime, you have to consider the issue of displacement,” Billdt says. “We know criminals know no geographic boundaries . . . I think [Bueermann] and I both agree that there is displacement from one community to the next.”
So that’s at least one of San Bernardino’s solutions to this riddle called crime—make it someone else’s conundrum.
But perhaps the saddest consequence of the suppression side of Operation Phoenix is that residents like Walton have gone from dreading the city’s criminal element to dreading the police.
“I keep seeing people getting stopped even when they’re not doing anything wrong,” Walton says. “Folks will be just walking down the street, and cops will stop them, saying something like they’re looking for a robbery suspect. Which would be cool, except the whole time they’re stopping the wrong people, they’re not looking for the robbery suspect.”
Robberies, incidentally, were up 2.45 percent citywide for the year as of the end of November.
“We’ll be out walking, like we’re doing now, and the cops will pull up and just mad-dog us,” says resident Danny Gallegos, 20, who I interviewed as he strolled down Waterman Avenue with his girlfriend, Cassandra Mejia, and their 13-month-old baby.
“They just stare you down,” Mejia says. “Everywhere you look, you see red lights flashing and someone getting pulled over. It’s scary.”
Unlike the belief that homicides have plummeted in the city, Mejia’s image of “red lights flashing everywhere” is no illusion. The time-tested philosophy of a police crime sweep is that if you stop everyone, sooner or later you’ll catch someone. As of November, police made a total of 14,397 arrests in 2006, compared to 13,240 during the same period in 2005. The number of juvenile bookings increased by almost 25 percent, while the number of street citations doubled.
While few would argue that putting criminals behind bars is a bad thing, the staggering cost of Mayor Morris’ brainchild—more than $3 million from June to November alone—already has some members of the San Bernardino City Council blanching. Council members Neil Derry and Wendy McCammack have complained that Morris is using a loophole in the city charter to pay for Phoenix-related expenses without council approval. It works like this: Phoenix expenditures are held in increments of less than $25,000, thus requiring only city manager approval.
Derry also says information regarding Phoenix-related expenses are routinely withheld from council scrutiny.
“The mayor started this program with his staff, with no input from the council,” says the councilman, who represents San Bernardino’s Ward 4. “We don’t know the cost. We don’t know what resources are being redirected to the Phoenix area from other areas of the city.
“What would happen if you put this level of resources into my ward? Crime would be nonexistent. The question is whether the problem will stay fixed when you pull back those resources. We’ve seen too often in San Bernardino the government making a short-term commitment, then declaring victory and walking away.”
Derry is especially critical of the San Bernardino Sun, which he refers to as “Morris’ Pravda,” for failing to cover Phoenix with a more critical eye.
“Three million gone in five months. You have to ask yourself, when you fail to look at anything critically going on in the city you cover, are you really a reporting service? President Bush is getting beaten up for that poster, ‘Mission Accomplished,’ when there was still a lot of work to be done. Well, that seems to be what’s happening here.”
Moreover, the “suppression” element of Phoenix seems to be sucking the life out of the “intervention” and “prevention” components. Almost all of the estimated $5.6 million in revenue to be generated by Measure Z—the quarter-cent tax increase approved by San Bernardino city voters in November—will be wiped out by Billdt’s plan to add $5.5 million to his department’s budget in order to meet Morris’s 40 new officers goal. When lobbying for passage of Measure Z, Morris promised voters that the revenue would be used not only for policing, but for social activities such as after-school programs as well. It was a promise that Cheryl Brown, a member of a citizens group formed in the wake of Mynisha Crenshaw’s death, vividly remembers.
“The mayor specifically told us that Measure Z money was not supposed to go just to the P.D.,” says Brown, co-founder of the Black Voice News, whose San Bernardino office is located within the Phoenix corridor. “Mr. Morris was pretty adamant that a lot of that money was to go to intervention and prevention.”
The non-suppression side of Operation Phoenix is already suffering. City officials recently revealed plans to relocate the popular Phoenix Center from its Waterman location to the First Church of the Nazarene about a mile away, effectively abandoning the kids who have to rely on the Waterman center. Why? The Waterman address charges $2,000 a month rent (.04 percent of Measure Z’s anticipated revenue), while the church location would be free.
“Because Nazarene is a church, we’d have to operate under different rules,” says Phoenix Center Executive Director Mike Miller. “But I don’t know what those different rules would be. Also, right now we have a field on which the children can play flag football, soccer and other recreational activities. I don’t know if Nazarene has such a field, but I imagine any recreational activities would have to be indoors.”
News of the pending move infuriated Derry, who cited it as yet another example of the city breaking its promises to residents.
“These kids have nothing else,” Derry says. “By opening the center on Waterman, the city made a commitment to that community, and I don’t believe it was a short-term commitment.”
With the City Council growing increasingly nervous at the soaring cost of Phoenix, the long-term viability of Morris’ crime “solution” is far from certain. This is bad news for residents of San Bernardino, because—as City Attorney Penman points out—Phoenix appears to be the only trick the law-and-order mayor has up his sleeves.
“I think the tough policing that has been implemented by Chief Billdt has been very successful in the short run as a way of lowering crime,” says Penman, pointedly failing to credit his former mayoral opponent for the success. “But, obviously, it’s going to take more than policing to deal with criminal activity. We need some kind of long-term program, and, right now, Operation Phoenix is pretty much the only game in town.”