SAN JOSE -- Just how bad has crime gotten in San Jose? Once known as America's Safest Big City, the capital of Silicon Valley has a higher crime rate than California or the United States as a whole, while the city's police force is catching half as many criminals as it did just a few years ago.
That's according to a new analysis by the city's independent auditor, which also found the city was clearing a far lower percentage of crimes than the average U.S. city and had seen police response time for some emergency calls more than double in eight years.
The new data come as the six major candidates for mayor each jockey to make public safety their top priority heading into the wide-open June primary. And police Chief Larry Esquivel, sworn in last week, confronts a department with low morale as officers continue to flee for better-paying jobs elsewhere.
"What we're seeing is the effect of 10 years of skyrocketing costs" for police officers, Mayor Chuck Reed said of the depleted force. "I believe it has an impact on the crime rate -- I think we're seeing that in the deterioration of services. We need more officers."
Among the findings from auditor Sharon Winslow Erickson's annual report:
San Jose's crime rate is still far lower than those of San Francisco and Oakland. And an unusually large share of San Jose's crimes are burglaries, vehicle thefts and other property crimes, while its violent crime rate is still lower than Los Angeles and San Diego.
Several mayoral candidates are vying to recapture San Jose's oft-boasted "safest big city" award, bestowed by independent groups until 2006.
The politics are tricky, however, as voters want both crime and taxes to stay low.
To balance its budget, the city imposed a 10 percent pay cut for police officers, and voters approved city employee pension cutbacks last year. But San Jose has lost or laid off hundreds of officers, and its active duty force has dropped to about 920 officers. Erickson said the dwindling police force has likely contributed to the recent sharp drop in arrests.
The City Council last week approved a 10 percent pay restoration for police officers, while the Police Officers Association union is fighting the pension changes in court.
"Every (mayoral) candidate will fall over themselves to tell voters how they will restore staffing in the Police Department," said one mayoral candidate, Councilman Sam Liccardo. "The truth is that none of us will. It's going to take a lot of time no matter who is in office -- the question is, 'What are we going to do in the meantime?'"
Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, the union-backed mayoral candidate, wants the city to spend more on its employees to beef up the police force and increase morale. Termed-out Reed's five City Council allies running to replace him -- Pete Constant, Rose Herrera, Liccardo, Madison Nguyen and Pierluigi Oliverio -- have backed the more moderate approach officials have taken in recent years, saying controlling employee cost is vital to keeping services, including police, intact.
"We can talk all we want about rebuilding the Police Department, but the reality is, if we don't have the financial resources to do so, we're not going to do any meaningful reform," said Nguyen, a strong backer of pension reform.
But while voters have preached fiscal restraint in the past, now they are increasingly aware of the police problems, too.
A new city-sponsored scientific survey of 219 San Jose residents, cited in the report, found that 27 percent of respondents had a member of their household who was a victim of a crime last year, up from 12 percent each of the prior two years. Favorability ratings for the Police Department also fell from 61 percent two years ago to 51 percent now, while fewer people said they felt safe around town and in their own neighborhoods.
Among the candidates' ideas: Constant wants to spend a bigger portion of the budget on police; Liccardo favors implementing predictive policing software; Nguyen is seeking to re-establish the burglary unit; and Herrera wants more administrative staffers to free up officers for field work.
"I don't think San Jose can take for granted that it's always going to be a safe city," Herrera said. "It takes a lot of work."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.
San Jose: 30 percent
U.S.: 47 percent
California: 44 percent
Arrests by San Jose police:
Emergency calls to San Jose police
July 2009-June 2010: 368,905
July 2012-June 2013: 454,919
Average San Jose police priority two emergency response times
2005: 8.2 minutes
2013: 20.3 minutes
Source: San Jose Office of the City Auditor, annual report: http://www.sanjoseca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/24941 (police section starts on page 83)