By Jesse B. Gill
San Bernardino police are super glad May is over. Actually, it’s safe to say that pretty much anyone who lives in the city feels the same way.
It’s because the bodies have been dropping in San Bernardino like crazy. The city saw more homicides in May than it has in the entire year.
There’s been a little confusion over the number of homicides in San Bernardino since January. Several news sources have reported different numbers, ranging from 16 to 22.
That’s because the Police Department keeps track of the homicides they have to solve, not just the number of killings.
If you’re counting the number of people killed, the number is 22. But police don’t count the cases the District Attorney’s office rules were justified.
Like the March 29 shooting death of 40-year-old Brandon Morrow at the hands of San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies. San Bernardino cops don’t count that one because the DA said it was a reasonable use of force. (Marrow also shot at the deputies, by the way. He hit one of them in the hand.)
The same goes for the March 4 stabbing of Andy Nath, 25, outside the Pool Club on E Street. Police arrested two men and a woman in connection with that killing but all three were later released after the DA’s office ruled they acted in self-defense.
So that puts the “official” number at 20.
But 12 of those happened in a single month: May.
When I spoke to Police Chief Rob Handy about the homicides in May, he used words like “frustrating,” “concerning” and “unacceptable,” to describe the war zone the city became during the last month of Spring.
“It’s been a rough time,” he says.
Still, you won’t see his department resorting to knee-jerk reactionary tactics to try and cut down on the killings.
“I don’t want to respond to each individual (killing) with some big program or window dressing,” Handy says.
The department has added extra patrols in the areas where gang-related shootings have broken out, mainly to prevent retaliation and ease tension in troubled neighborhoods.
Handy was sworn in as San Bernardino’s police chief in October, after a career as a commander for the Phoenix Police Department. He commanded a rough area called Maryvale with an average homicide rate that dwarfs San Bernardino’s.
And while he takes the recent homicides seriously, the sheer volume of them this month don’t seem to rattle him.
“I haven’t seen anything in the last seven months that indicates that this is anything more than a bad stretch,” he said.
And it’s other kinds of criminal behavior, he said, that often leads to the homicides that have occupied the papers’ front pages this month.
Drugs, gangs and prostitution, he said. Those are the biggest problems.
And so if there’s a response to the dramatic jump in homicide numbers, it’s that his people are working harder to suppress that kind of activity.
The idea is to cut down on the drugs, gangs and hookers and by extension, cut down on the killings.
“And all of these victims—none of them deserved to die,” Handy says. “I’m not saying that because they were engaged in that behavior that they deserved to die.
“But I do think that the chances that your chances of being a victim of being a violent crime are much greater when you’re involved in those kinds of activity—gangs, drugs and prostitution.”
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a reactionary response. Just ask the city’s homicide detectives.
These are a group of police who can barely keep their feet underneath them right now, according to Handy. When they received word of the city’s last May homicide—Gregario Gonzales, 19, of San Bernardino was shot to death May 29 while visiting the memorial site of his friend, Michael Espino, who was, of course, a homicide victim—detectives were putting in extra hours on the weekend to try and get some of the open cases off of their desks.
And their clearance rate—the percentage of cases solved—is hovering around 50 percent right now, Handy said. And they’re tired.
“They’re worn out,” Handy said. “They are taxed. They are spread thin. They are working all kinds of hours.”
“They’re doing a great job under a very difficult set of circumstances.”
If you’re looking for the silver lining—and trust me, the cops policing San Bernardino definitely are—it’s that there’s no common thread linking any of the killings.
“We do think that the incidents are independent of each other,” Handy says. “We haven’t found anything that links any of them.”
I may have spoken too soon when I said San Bernardino police are glad May is over. Why? At 1:57 a.m. on June 1, detectives rolled to an apartment complex near the intersection of Waterman and Baseline.
Responding to a shots fired call, they found Colton resident Donald Ray McCall Jr., 19, shot to death. No suspect. No motive.
So far, June’s not off to a great start.
NOTE: It’d be pretty messed up of me to write a story like this and not mention the fact that I got the idea for it by reading The San Bernardino Sun this year. Yes, that’s where I used to work but they’ve tracked every killing in San Bernardino this year and I used their stats as a jumping-off point. Credit where credit’s due and all of that . . .