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Sacramento Police Try New Focus on Downtown

Acknowledging the unique demands of keeping watch over the central city, Sacramento police officials have redrawn their beat boundaries to make the city's downtown and midtown areas one concentrated command.

For now, it's largely a symbolic move. There are no additional police officers assigned downtown as a result -- at least not until department officials learn what they'll reap from a sales tax measure passed by voters last week -- nor are there major changes planned for the resources already there.

But police, business advocates and residents agree the move signals a new commitment to the central city and a recognition of the distinctive challenges that come along with the area's economic, political and cultural significance.

That includes dealing with a population that fluctuates greatly depending on the day of the week and time of day, a bustling nightlife scene and the location of the Capitol building itself, which attracts protesters, tourists and a large workforce.

"I think that the Police Department has made a statement that this area is not just unique, but it does require a varied level of service," said Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. "Many, many years ago, this was simply a place people came to work. But as we've seen the evolution of incredible restaurants and bars and entertainment venues, some things had to change to address the customers coming downtown."

Previously, "the core" -- as police refer to it -- had been grouped with east Sacramento, Oak Park, Tahoe Park and their surrounding communities, all under the leadership of a single captain.

That central division generated more calls for service than the north or south divisions, in large part because of activity in the downtown and midtown areas. In 2011, those areas produced almost 57,000 calls, nearly 70 percent of the central division's workload and 15 percent of calls citywide, according to department statistics.

With the new central command, there are now four police divisions in the city, with the new eastern division covering the rest of what was the central command. Police officials say the changes allow command staff to better focus on the various issues specific to a neighborhood.

In the core, that means ensuring the city's urban center is safe for those who work, live or play there. Police and community members are sensitive to the perceptions of those living outside the area. As longtime central city resident William Burg observed, "If people are worrying that they're going to get shot ... they're not going to come down."

"We need the core to be a draw," said police Capt. Ken Bernard, who commands the revised central division. To achieve that goal, he said, "We really need to problem-solve."

Bernard and other officials consider the central city to be relatively safe, given the large number of people who pass through. Still, there are challenges.

In 2011, about 300 violent crimes and almost 3,000 property crimes were reported in downtown and midtown, according to a Bee analysis of police data. Though crime rates there and citywide have been falling in recent years, they are on the upswing this year.

Based on trends through September, violent crime in the central city is projected to be up slightly -- roughly 1 percent -- by the end of the year, The Bee's analysis shows. Property crime is on track to be up almost 8 percent.

And although the central city sees many fewer homicides than a number of the city's neighborhoods, those that do occur draw considerable public attention.

In August, 32-year-old Joseph Long was killed by stray gunfire while walking home from a swing dancing session in the area of 28th and J streets. Described by police as an innocent bystander, Long was struck in a parking lot next to one of the city's busiest nightlife hubs.

On Wednesday night, 36-year-old Jesse Nunez died after suffering multiple gunshot wounds in the area of 15th and S streets, where another popular bar is located.

In the wake of crimes like those -- and in dealing with the smaller "quality of life" crimes in between -- residents say they value having a line of communication with the Police Department. Several of those interviewed said they are pleased with the change and have noticed a particular effort by Bernard and his team.

"It is important to have that kind of direct relationship," said Burg, 43, secretary of the Midtown Neighborhood Association. "I've met Ken Bernard. I know who he is. I have his card, I can give him a call."

Julie Murphy of the Marshall School/New Era Park Neighborhood Association said she was grateful for Bernard's attention after the August homicide.

In addition to answering questions from nervous residents, Murphy said Bernard recommended some physical improvements to the area and reached out to the nearby gas station owner for help in making some of those changes, including a fence to separate the parking lot where Long was shot from the gas station.

"The city of Sacramento loves the cachet that is the central city," said Murphy, a 25-year midtown resident. "It's good to see they're putting additional (emphasis) into the city."

As police officials wait for word on how many officers they can hire after the passage of Sacramento's Measure U, Bernard said some changes can be made with his current resources. Currently, that's roughly 60 officers and sergeants -- including those assigned to specialty teams like the bike and mounted units -- spread over three shifts and seven days, not including temporary assignments, vacations and injuries.

In particular, Bernard and his team have taken an interest in Cesar E. Chavez Plaza, what Bernard and others have referred to as the "front porch" of City Hall.

The park is perhaps best known for a vibrant Wednesday farmer's market and crowded Concert in the Park series during summer months. More often, though, the park is inhabited by the city's down and out.

Bernard said he is concerned about a large number of probationers and parolees who loiter there and pose a threat to safety. His team regularly makes arrests in the park for drug use, drinking and public intoxication, he said, as well as for outstanding warrants.

The park should be "the gem of the city," Bernard said. Instead, "it feels co-opted by people who are intoxicated and have nowhere else to be," he said.

Aside from making arrests, though, Bernard said he believes the park's atmosphere can be improved in part through environmental design, including changes to lighting, landscaping and even the kind of patio furniture available to park users. He said he also wants to increase the number of organized activities at the park.

Bernard said he is particularly encouraged by the recent purchase of the depressed Downtown Plaza shopping mall and the possibilities for improvement there and on the rest of the K Street corridor.

"Our city is so cool. It's so beautiful, it's so walkable, but some of our prime real estate doesn't feel safe," he said. "I hope a year from now it feels different."

Copyright 2012 - The Sacramento Bee

McClatchy-Tribune News Service