Cornelius Bowser was astonished when the San Diego Police Department told the city's Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention two weeks ago that there's been only one gang-related murder so far this year. Bowser, a commission member, pastor of Charity Apostolic Church in Santee and a reformed gang member himself, says there have been at least five.
It's not that the police department can't count; it's that it uses different criteria to determine what is and what isn't a gang-related crime. The discrepancy worries Bowser because lower numbers can be used to claim that crime-reduction efforts have been more successful than they've been, and because the numbers can factor into where the city spends limited money.
"If the stats are not correct, then we won't get the resources and support and the help we need in our communities," says Bowser, who grew up near Memorial Park in Logan Heights and now lives in El Cajon. "These are homicides that happen in our communities . A lot of times, people don't pay attention to them, and something has to be done."
At the April 18 meeting of the Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention, which advises the mayor and City Council on how best to tackle the problem of gang violence, Police Lt. Dave Nisleit read off statistics for 2012 and compared them with what's happened so far in 2013. According to his report, only one gang-related homicide occurred this year.
After the meeting, Bowser compiled his own statistics for this year based media reports and vigils and funerals he's attended— some of those experiences come from working with the San Diego Compassion Project, which gives emotional support to people who lose family members to violence.
For this year, Bowser counted four deaths he believes involved gang members killing one of their own. Another death involved a drive-by shooting, and two others resulted from police shootings. Two other deaths might be gang-related homicides, but Bowser isn't sure.
During the commission meeting, Nisleit noted that certain incidents are not classified as gang-related crimes, such as when one gang member assaults a member of the same gang.
Bowser said intra-gang squabbles should be included in police data.
The police disagree. In a statement provided to CityBeat, the department said it's confident the statistics presented to the commission are comprehensive and that it has no plans to change its reporting methods. Lt. Roy Moody, who was a sergeant for one year in the gang unit and a lieutenant for two, said in an interview that the statistics aren't misleading; the department's merely following the law.
Police consider a crime to be gang-related if the incident benefits a gang. It can also be defined as gang-related if a gang directs or is associated with an incident and the crime helps other criminal conduct perpetrated by gang members. The criteria are based on the California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, signed into law in 1988.
Police point out that all statistics are reported to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, as well as to the San Diego Association of Governments; gang-related stats are merely a data subset that's given to the commission. They also acknowledge that statistics can be changed retroactively, like when a cold case is solved and found to have been gang-related, changing the tally for that year.
Although another commission member, Dr. Rodney Hood, said he'd also like to see more comprehensive statistics, the commission made no plans at the April 18 meeting to ask the police to change the way the numbers are reported.
Rosa Ana Lozada, who chairs the gang commission, said after the April 18 meeting that she doesn't see a need for the numbers to be reported differently. The commission has requested additional statistics in the past, and the police department has provided them. That information helps the commission determine where to focus its efforts. Lozada said that including additional data is always a possibility, but she added that commissioners might have individual interests that deviate from the group's larger mission.
"I think we're always struggling with what is the information that is most useful and most helpful in assisting us with the work that we're doing," she said.