SAN JOSE -- In a year when crime issues rose to rare prominence in city affairs, the homicide count in San Jose reached its highest point in two decades Tuesday when a teenage boy was found shot to death on a quiet street.
The total of 44 is the highest since 53 were recorded in 1991, and it comes on the heels of an astounding two-year spike: 40 homicides occurred last year, doubling a 2010 count that was a 20-year low.
"This number is one that we were hoping we would not reach. It certainly does not look good in a historical perspective," Sgt. Jason Dwyer said Tuesday.
Police were called to the 1500 block of Fairhaven Drive off Hillsdale Avenue about 3:20 p.m. after receiving a call about a car crash. That's where they found the victim, who had either stumbled out or been thrown from a white Chevrolet pickup truck. The truck rested with its tailgate against the tree on the sidewalk. The teen, who police believe is 18 years old, lay several feet away in the street. Paramedics determined his injuries did not appear to be caused by a crash and that he had been shot.
"No motive, no suspects. This is just a classic whodunit," Dwyer said. "This is not normal. We're scratching our heads trying to figure out what happened."
This year's surge in homicides is sounding new alarms about violent crime in the city at a time when there are fewer officers on the streets. Equally alarming to some law enforcement veterans is that the latest increase in killings occurred in an era of tougher crime laws and an overall decrease in crime rates across the state and nation.
Sgt. Jim Unland, president of the San Jose Police Officers Association, said recently it's important to note the city's 1991 homicide tally predated the mid-1990s passage of California's Three Strikes Law and stricter federal gun-control laws.
"This was really a wild city (in 1991). That we're nearing numbers from pre-Three Strikes Law is something," Unland said.
For San Jose, with a population approaching 1 million, 44 is still low in comparison to nearby large cities, such as Oakland, which has nearly three times as many slayings with less than half the population. City leaders recognize this perspective gives little solace to a citizenry that feels under siege.
In the South San Jose neighborhood near Paul Moore Park, children often play ball and residents walk their dogs in the afternoon. It is generally considered safe. But on Tuesday night, neighbors stood amid well-groomed homes strung with Christmas lights to watch as police investigated the city's latest killing.
"No, this is definitely not normal," said Kim Zilliox, who has lived in the neighborhood with her husband and two children for eight years. She heard a single shot followed soon after by the whirl of a helicopter overhead. "When you hear a helicopter hover in one spot, you know something is going on. It's alarming."
In a wide-ranging interview about city crime last week, Mayor Chuck Reed spoke about the uptick in violence this year.
"We like to brag about being a safe city in San Jose. And when something bad happens, it tends to get more attention," he said. "Because we haven't accepted a high level of crime, people get concerned about it."
Leaders of San Jose's widely praised Gang Prevention Task Force caution that while homicide numbers are instructive, they can mask the true level of community violence, particularly those most heavily afflicted by gang activity.
Task force Superintendent Mario Maciel has said their work has "kept a lid" on gang violence to ensure it doesn't escalate. The violence that does happen, however, has intensified amid a street war arms race worsened by boiling tensions.
"There's more ferocity, more lethality," Maciel said recently. "But even if there were zero homicides, you have near fatalities, paralysis. It can give you a false sense of security."
The task force was instrumental during a particularly bloody stretch in August that tallied eight homicides in 11 days. Four of the killings were classified as gang-related. Of the 44 homicides this year, 17 have been deemed gang-related.
San Jose has also seen a double-digit percentage spike this year in "quality of life" crimes, including burglaries, robberies and auto thefts.
The crime rate has sparked discussion of whether lower police staffing is to blame. Most city leaders agree that having more officers is ideal, but opinions vary about whether a beefier patrol would necessarily tamp down less predictable non-gang violence.
"The vast majority are crimes of passion or opportunity, and those are difficult to deal with," said Councilman Pete Constant, a former San Jose police officer. This year, gang violence accounts for less than 40 percent of the city's homicides, down from the typical rate of about 50 percent.
To the police union's Unland, there's no question about the connection between dwindling officer numbers -- from nearly 1,400 in 2008 to fewer than 1,050 today -- and rising crime, punctuated by this year's milestone homicide count.
"I don't think you can attribute it to everything. But I find it hard to ignore," Unland said. "When you go from a proactive, progressive policing model to a reactive model, you lose control of certain crimes."
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.