A glimpse of what it looks like when a city goes bankrupt…
Five months after San Bernardino filed for bankruptcy â?? the third California city to seek Chapter 9 protections in 2012 â?? residents here are confronting a transformed and more perilous city.
After violent crime had dropped steadily for years, the homicide rate shot up more than 50 percent in 2012 as a shrinking police force struggled to keep order in a city long troubled by street gangs that have migrated from Los Angeles, 60 miles to the west.
â??Lock your doors and load your guns,â?? the city attorney, James F. Penman, said he routinely told worried residents asking how they can protect themselves.
This is one of the prices that cities often pay for falling into bankruptcy: the police force is cut, crime skyrockets and residents are left trying to ensure their own safety.
A little over a year ago, this cityâ??s falling crime rate was a success story. An aggressive gang intervention effort helped cut the homicide rate by nearly half since the 2005 peak, and in 2011 the program was held up by the National League of Cities as a model for other cities to follow.
But nearly all that progress was erased last year as San Bernardino collapsed under the weight of the same forces that have hit cities all over California and threaten to plunge still more of them into insolvency: high foreclosure rates that eroded the cityâ??s tax revenue, stubborn unemployment, and pension obligations that the city could no longer afford.
Stockton, Calif., which filed for bankruptcy in June, has followed a similarly grim path into insolvency, logging more homicides last year than ever before. In Vallejo, Calif., which filed for bankruptcy in 2008, cuts left the police force a third smaller, and the city became a hub for prostitution.
In San Bernardino, dozens of officers have been laid off since the bankruptcy filing, leaving the police force with 264 officers, down from 350 in 2009. Those who remain call in sick more often, said the police chief, Robert Handy. Emergency response times are up. Nonemergency calls often get no response.
At the same time, as part of a plan to reduce the state prison population, nearly 4,000 criminals who would once have been sent to state prison have been put in the custody of San Bernardino County law enforcement authorities. Some have been released, putting more low-level criminals back on the streets of San Bernardino, Chief Hardy said, and adding to the challenges already faced by the police.
â??All of our crime is up, and the city has a very high crime rate per capita anyway,â?? Chief Handy said. â??I canâ??t police the city with much less than this. Weâ??re dangerously close as it is.â??
As lawyers wrangle in court over San Bernardinoâ??s plan to cut $26 million from its budget and defer some of its pension payments, city officials say there is little more they can do to turn back the rising tide of violence.
Mayor Patrick J. Morris said he was even looking into eliminating the Police Department entirely, and relying on the county Sheriffâ??s Department for law enforcement, which could save money. Many other city services, he said, have already been cut â??almost into nonexistence.â??
â??The parks department is shredded, the libraries similarly,â?? Mr. Morris said. â??My office is down to nobody. Iâ??ve got literally no one left.â?? (Mr. Morrisâ??s son now serves as a volunteer chief of staff for the mayorâ??s office.)
With the city unable to provide, residents have begun to take more responsibility. Volunteers help with park maintenance, work at the city animal shelter and, in some cases, even replace broken streetlights.
Neighborhood watch groups have also grown in number in the last year, as they did in Vallejo and Stockton after those cities filed for bankruptcy. There are now more than 100 groups and counting, up from 76 last year. Chief Handy said the groups would play a â??huge partâ?? in fighting crime, especially given the cut to the police.
In less affluent parts of the city, though, community groups have had less influence. On the West Side, traditionally a gang-controlled area, one resident, Elisa Cortez, said that almost all the neighbors on her block had recently moved in, and that she did not know them.