Retail, commercial crime 'has totally gotten out of control': City Council mulls options to curb offenses

Oct. 23—It starts off small — intoxicated people wandering off the streets into Jerry's Pizza and Pub.

Some leave without any trouble, or comply with requests to go. But others create a ruckus at the longtime downtown Bakersfield eatery, which prompts customer complaints. That then leads to a loss of business, said Jose Jimenez, Jerry's Pizza general manager.

"If it happens in a particular hour of the day, customers won't come in at that hour," Jimenez added. "And, we're seeing a little bit (of that) happening for our lunch rushes. They're not as busy as they used to be."

Lower-level crimes aren't classified as serious felonies — such as murders and sex crimes — but their effects are no less detrimental on a business's bottom line.

Local retail and commercial establishments have been flooded with those repeatedly committing various crimes, which led the Bakersfield City Council to ponder solutions to stop offenders during its Wednesday meeting. Discussions during the meeting included creating a specialized team in the Bakersfield Police Department targeting retail and commercial crimes and creating a court program for lower-level offenders to get help.

"(Theft in retail and commercial establishments) is so rampant in our community (and is) impacting so many of our business owners, and by extension impacting everybody in the community," BPD Chief Greg Terry said Friday in a phone interview.

A specialized group

Proposed changes in the BPD include adding some detectives focused on retail and commercial crimes to a unit focused on quality-of-life problems.

Terry said 13 officers across three teams, called the impact team, focus on homelessness and crimes such as vandalism and loitering. This group also has officers working with Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services to respond to individuals undergoing mental health crises.

Experienced detectives could be housed within the impact team, Terry said. An organized retail theft group currently exists, but an impact team funnels more resources to stem these kinds of crimes, he added.

"We are hearing a lot of consternation from our local businesses," Bakersfield City Manager Christian Clegg said at Wednesday's council meeting. "Folks are really, really struggling with vandalism ... or even targeted retail crime."

Terry added partnerships and increased resources will deter criminals targeting retailers, small businesses, construction sites and residential developers. Crimes affecting these places include illegal dumping, burglaries and theft.

Police meet with business leaders to exchange investigatory information, strategies and techniques, the police chief said. He is also considering partnering with a California Highway Patrol retail crimes task force.

Detectives specializing in a particular area become intimately familiar with the complex investigations required within the business and commercial landscape, Terry added.

Carl Saenger, the owner of The American Jewelry Co., voiced his support for any specialized group examining retail crime and knows his fellow downtown businesses with storefronts face problems. He said his store — located on a fifth floor — is saved from trouble experienced by establishments in more accessible locations.

"The retail crime has totally gotten out of control," Saenger said.

Jimenez, at Jerry's Pizza, said several downtown businesses contracted with security patrols to deter crime. They often respond faster than police, he said.

A diversion center

Bakersfield is considering the creation of a diversion center to revive substance abuse and mental health programs, which once flourished under state law but no longer exist.

"There is a tremendous need for it," Clegg said during a phone interview Friday.

Creating a diversion center could allow volunteers to go to these locations rather than jail and then check into mental health treatment or drug or substance abuse programs, Clegg said.

Clegg said their focus is to avoid recidivism, and not target those who rarely get picked up by police. Repeat offenders may have smashed windows or vandalized businesses and a diversion court enters them into programs to address the root cause behind their illegal behavior, he added.

Unintended consequences from state laws stripping diversion programs included letting repeat offenders go with little consequences, Clegg said. Legislators intended to reform the criminal justice system by diverting rare offenders from jail time that could have detrimental effects on them, he noted.

Accountability has vanished for low-level repeat offenders because they don't serve time in jails due to reduced space and staffing shortages at the Kern County Sheriff's Office, Clegg said at Wednesday's City Council meeting.

The city manager proposed at the council meeting that some BPD officers be staffed at local jails to help.

Clegg's method revolves around first getting people into jails so they can be in a diversion program. Asked about how stretched staffing at jails could affect those entering a diversion program, Clegg said every logistic detail has not been hammered out yet.

Clegg noted during the meeting city staff will determine if a new structure needs to be created or if an existing building can be used to house a diversion center. Any diversion center would be in partnership with the Kern County District Attorney's Office, the KCSO, the Public Defender's Office, judges, the Kern County Probation Department and private attorneys.

Public Defender Peter Kang wrote by email an effective diversion center balances accountability, mercy and justice. He would be "interested and optimistic" to learn more about a new diversion center and will keep an open mind.

"In my experience, for people with mental health issues, we're not making anyone better by sending them to prison," Kang wrote. "They are going into prison sick and getting out sicker. The conditions there, the overcrowding, the noise, the solitary confinement and exposure to violence, worsen mental illness."

Those suffering from mental health issues are "some of the most service-resistant" and therefore "it's important that a diversion court understand how to help those experiencing a mental health crisis or homelessness access and want to access the right kind of treatment and support they need," he added.

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood wasn't immediately available for comment. Tim Caughron, the president of the Kern County Law Enforcement Association, said he didn't know many specifics about the city's plan but said inmates getting treatment via diversion treatments received great benefits in years past.

The Kern County Detentions Officer Association did not respond to a request for comment about booking those with misdemeanors and staffing levels. The Kern County District Attorney's Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Ishani Desai can be reached at 661-395-7417. Follow her on Twitter: @_ishanidesai.