Calif. researchers investigate substantial drops in homicide rates in many large cities nationwide By:

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By Lyndsay WinkleyThe San Diego Union-Tribune

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SAN DIEGO — Across San Diego County, homicides fell last year — a trend mirrored in some other large cities and part of a continuing nationwide return to rates seen before the pandemic.

It wasn’t just a little dip. Locally, killings fell by about 18 percent, from 107 in 2022 to 88 in 2023. Across the nation, experts are predicting homicides could fall by 10 percent.

The full picture won’t be available until later this year, but if the decrease holds, if would be among the biggest single-year drops since at least 1960, when modern record-keeping began, according to the Council on Criminal Justice.

Experts suspect reasons fueling the decrease may be linked to those behind the historic rise in homicides at the start of the pandemic.

“We saw a fairly shocking increase in homicides nationally, on the order of 30 percent,” said Ames Grawert , senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Notably, the increase happened nearly everywhere.

It was a “true once-in-a-generation phenomenon with untold havoc wreaked in communities, especially some of the more vulnerable communities nationwide,” Grawert said.

The spike has been linked to a storm of potential factors. The pandemic led to the suspension or reduction of many social support programs that communities rely on — one of many COVID-19 realities that fueled greater emotional and economic stress. And after the murder of George Floyd, public trust in law enforcement ruptured.

But it’s hard to know with certainty what factors shape homicide and other crime cycles.

“I think about the research some of my colleagues did on the crime decline from the 1990s to the 2010s, and even with reams of data covering decades, they couldn’t come to a conclusion on what single factor or handful of factors explained it,” Grawert said.

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Especially because trends are rarely consistent across the board. Last year, some cities, like Washington, D.C. , saw notable increases in homicides between 2022 and 2023, one of a handful of places that bucked the national shift.

“Big social and economic forces appear to have been behind the sharp trends that began in 2020, but now there is considerable variation between cities and crime types that suggests local factors are becoming more significant,” said Adam Gelb, president and CEO of the Council on Criminal Justice.

San Diego police officials didn’t point to any one factor shaping homicides, but the region’s homicide data tells its own story.

Last year, 15 homeless people in the region were killed — approaching double the number of homeless victims from the prior year.

Some of them died after confrontations with what police said were apparent strangers. Two teens were arrested after 58-year-old Michael Shook, an unhoused man, was stabbed and beaten at a Mission Beach park July 5. The following month, 70-year-old Michael Goodin, also homeless, was stabbed and beaten on a Logan Heights trolley platform. Three men have been arrested.

Strangers were linked to the death of Annette Pershal, affectionately known as”Granny Annie” in the Serra Mesa community. The 68-year-old was asleep in a parking lot on May 8, 2023, when she was peppered with BB pellets. Prosecutors said one of two teens accused of a role in the attack had told friends he was going “hobo hunting.”

And of the known suspects in the region’s homicides last year, seven suspects were homeless. Five of those seven were accused of killing other homeless people.

Guns were the most common weapon in killings, used in just over half of last year’s deaths. That generally falls in line with prior years.

Shootings are rarely completely random, but 2023 brought a bizarre hour-long spree in Spring Valley when a gunman drove up, got out of his vehicle and opened fire at three different sites. Seven people were shot at. One was grazed and four were struck, including Raul Rojas Valdez, who died.

If convicted, Jaime Ernesto Gonzalez III faces 227 years to life. But the case is on hold, as Gonzalez’s mental competency to stand trial is evaluated.

Also on hold pending a mental competency evaluation is the case against Enrique Barajas. The 77-year-old is accused of walking into a Fallbrook plant nursery with a rifle and shooting three of his co-workers, including his daughter. She and another worker survived the Feb. 10, 2023, attack, but 69-year-old Francisco Hernandez Mireles died.

Despite the positive trend, homicide figures across the nation are still higher in some places than they were in 2019 across the nation. But San Diego County has effectively returned to pre-pandemic homicide figures. In 2019, the region saw 85 homicides — just three less than last year.

Staff writer Teri Figueroa contributed to this report.

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