CONCORD -- There was a time when gang members loitered in front of convenience stores and hung out in the city's parks. The problem here was so challenging that the police department had an in-house gang-intervention specialist.
Though police say gang activity has decreased in recent years, the public perception that Concord is a high-crime city endures.
This image may be hampering Concord's ability to attract housing and retail projects, with developers looking instead to Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill. So city leaders want to develop a public-relations campaign to promote Concord as a safe community.
"We're actually doing really good work. There's so many good things happening regarding public safety in our community, but how we market that is really that next step for us," Police Chief Guy Swanger said recently during a presentation of the city's 2013 crime statistics.
Among violent crimes, the number of rapes fell from 19 to 13, while robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries and larceny remained fairly steady. One third of the 239 felony assaults in the city were domestic violence incidents, and 3 percent were gang related, records show. Thirty-nine percent of the 162 robberies involved a gun or threat of one.
Concord's crime statistics compare favorably with Bay Area cities of similar size and demographics, Swanger said. For example, Vallejo had 28 murders, 30 rapes and 424 robberies in 2013, according to information compiled by Concord police.
There was a troubling spike in stolen vehicles in Concord, with the number rising from 659 in 2012 to 769 last year -- an increase in line with some neighboring cities, Swanger said. However, police recovered 84 percent of stolen cars; proof, he added, that illegal chop shops are becoming a thing of the past.
Although the city's only murder last year was a gang shooting, known gang members were involved in just eight violent crimes last year, down from 23 incidents in 2011, records show. Swanger attributes the decline in gang-related violent crime, in part, to merging the police department's gang and narcotic units in 2011 and partnerships with the Drug Enforcement Administration and Department of Homeland Security.
Still, the belief that Concord has a serious gang problem persists, even among residents. In a February poll, public safety issues were among the highest ranked in terms of importance. Respondents want Concord to improve gang prevention efforts, crime investigation services and neighborhood police patrols at night.
"We've got to get the word out about gangs because it keeps showing up," Councilman Edi Birsan said. "It's the biggest fear factor people have and it just doesn't exist here in Concord."
But gangs may be taking root again among the city's high school students. For example, there has been an increase in gang activity at Mt. Diablo High School this year, including graffiti, fights and wearing gang colors, according to Principal Liane Cismowski. Since most of the teens who attend the high school live in Bay Point, administrators included the Contra Costa Sheriff's Office in a meeting March 31 with students who have been involved in gang conflicts, their parents and the Concord police, Cismowski said.
Concord can begin to change its image by creating activities that draw residents out of their homes to walk and ride bikes, sending the signal that the neighborhood is safe, Swanger said.
"Pretty soon that perception of what Concord was, that blue-collar kind of tough, rough town begins to change a little bit," he added. "Because we don't have drive-by shootings, we don't have in schools this very violent type of situation, we don't have large gang fights, we don't have roving groups, we don't have cruising that intimidates people.
"I consider us, for a big town, pretty safe."
Nati Flores says the Monument Corridor has improved since she was growing up there in the 1990s. Flores, a program director at the Michael Chavez Center for Economic Opportunity, said Concord police have done a good job of building trust with the community. Although groups of young people smoking and drinking have driven some families away from the parks in the area, for the past couple of years parents and children have gathered every morning at Cambridge Park to walk and jog, Flores said. The group's presence keeps troublemakers from hanging out there, she added.
While some people still say they aren't comfortable walking at night, Flores believes Concord is getting better.
"I think it is changing in both perception and statistics, but it's not going to turn around in a year," Flores said.
Lisa P. White covers Concord and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.
To read Concord Police Chief Guy Swanger's Semiannual Public Safety Report visit the city's website at www.ci.concord.ca.us.
Crime 2012 2013
Homicide 0 1
Rape 19 13
Robbery 153 162
Aggravated 230 239 (total number of victims)
Burglary 829 828
Larceny 2694 2764
Auto Theft 659 769
Source: Concord Police Department