Homicides are up, radical prosecutors are taking office, and politicians are hobbling the police. Is any large urban area managing to maintain order in this tumult? Yes—and believe it or not, it’s in California, that hotbed of progressive disorder.
The eighth-largest city in the United States, with 1.4 million residents, San Diego has been called the safest big city in America as it keeps crime down while maintaining sensible law enforcement policies. Even with a large metropolitan area, the city’s violent- and property-crime rates remain low. As the rest of the country saw violence explode in 2020, the number of homicides in San Diego rose only slightly, from 50 to 55 murders. (Philadelphia, a city of roughly the same size as San Diego, saw homicides rise from 356 in 2019 to 499 murders in 2020.)
San Diego’s success does not owe to any great geographic, economic, or demographic luck. The “birthplace of California” is the southernmost of the state’s big cities, leaving it exposed to the Mexican border. Notoriously lawless Tijuana looms just down the highway. The city’s mild year-round climate could make it an inviting target for homelessness and transients. And though its median household income is $79,000, its poverty rate is approximately 13 percent. This is no wealthy, homogeneous, and cold Scandinavian locale.
Much of the credit for keeping the city safe belongs instead to the triumvirate of the chief prosecutor, chief of police, and mayor. San Diego’s district attorney, Summer Stephan, has been a prosecutor for decades. She worked her way up as a line prosecutor, trying over 100 jury trials. Having worked homicides, sexual assaults, and child-abuse cases, she’s seen the harm that violent criminals inflict on victims and society. Stephan does not maintain that police should be abolished, that systemic racism has infected the criminal-justice system, or that violent criminals should be released. (For these reasons, the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego has called for her resignation.) But she’s also demonstrated a capacity for nuance, initiating diversion programs for juvenile cases and mental-health issues, creating model programs to protect victims, and tussling with local police organizations to charge an officer with filing a false report. Stephan is a balanced and modern prosecutor—pursuing justice while navigating the difficult waters of reform and safety.
Stephan has a strong partner in San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit, who hails from a law-enforcement family: his father was a cop, and his son is a cop, too. Nisleit worked his way up from patrol to specialized units, including robbery, gangs, and homicides; sex crimes; internal affairs; homeless outreach; and SWAT. Nisleit supports a diverse and qualified police force, but he does not call his officers corrupt or racist. Nisleit calls out gangs for inflicting violence rather than labeling them misunderstood youths. The San Diego police department maintains a homeless-outreach team to procure services for the homeless, but it does not permit them to harass citizens. In September, the city removed a homeless encampment; homelessness, though still a problem, is far less common here than in other major California cities.
The final piece of the trio is the mayor. From 2014 through the end of 2020, Republican Kevin Faulconer held that office, compiling a fiscally conservative, socially moderate record. On law enforcement, he mostly stayed out of the way and allowed the district attorney and police chief—the experts in public safety—to do their jobs. San Diego recently elected a new mayor, Democrat Todd Gloria, a third-generation San Diegan who ran on a progressive platform but so far has left the police and prosecutors alone. It may be enough for a mayor not to interfere with law enforcement to keep a city safe, as long as a strong prosecutor and police chief are on the job.
San Diego is not perfect; it still deals with crime and homelessness, and it has not been immune from nationwide trends. But it stands out as a big city in the United States that has not given over to disorder. A sensible alignment between the chief prosecutor, the chief of police, and the mayor is often the right prescription for a safe community. New York in the 2000s was one such example. San Diego’s district attorney, police chief, and mayor should be lauded for keeping their citizens safe. And San Diego’s citizens should be congratulated for picking strong leaders who have kept their city a great place to live, work, and raise a family.
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