Marek Warszawski

Is downtown Fresno becoming safer? Crime statistics only tell part of the story

Watch the downtown Fresno police bike patrol in action

Sgt. Alfonso Castillo, leader of the Downtown Police Unit, talks about the overall reduction in crime in downtown Fresno, and the important role the bike unit plays in it.
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Sgt. Alfonso Castillo, leader of the Downtown Police Unit, talks about the overall reduction in crime in downtown Fresno, and the important role the bike unit plays in it.

One downtown Fresno business got broken into and burglarized so often — four times in a three-month span — that the owner closed his doors and left town.

“That’s exactly why we left,” Darren Johnson said. “Best move I ever made.”

Another downtown Fresno business has never been broken into, nor burglarized. Not in 3½ years at two separate locations.

“I’ve never seen crime,” Kirk James says. “We caught one individual three years ago walking out of (a neighboring store) with a few things after it was closed for the day. Besides that I’ve never experienced anything firsthand.”

Fulton Cycle Works, Johnson’s business, was located at 1424 Fulton St. The storefront, with its large front windows and ornate decor, is part of the historic Warnors Theatre Complex.

Here’s what’s interesting: Root General is also located at 1424 Fulton Street. In May 2016, soon after Johnson moved out, Kirk and Cassey James moved in.

“We really haven’t had one negative experience,” Cassey James said.

I thought about the Jameses – and Johnson – while reading a recent news story about the decline in downtown Fresno crime.

Did you see these figures? From 2017 to 2018, robberies dipped 43.8 percent, according to Fresno Police Department statistics. Vehicle burglaries are down 55.4 percent, other burglaries 25 percent, robberies 43.8 percent, larcenies 11.5 percent and vehicle thefts 31 percent.

Reading about these declines, as well as hearing the disparate stories told by two business owners at the same location, prompted me to start asking questions.

T.J. Moore, bike patrol member of the Downtown Police Unit, (nickname on the street: “Gummy Bearâ€) gets a giggle out of 4-year-old Elara Arroyo, after giving her a badge sticker, as she and parents Edward and April Arroyo visit Fulton Street in downtown, Feb. 28, 2019. JOHN WALKER

Did the reopening of Fulton Street, in October 2017, play a role by bringing more foot and car traffic (i.e. eyes on the street) to Fresno’s urban core? Have the police adopted different, more successful strategies?

Or, as expressed by the naysayers on Facebook and in the comments section, are the police simply driving criminals out of downtown and into neighboring areas like the Tower District?

What I learned is there’s no easy, straightforward answer. Plus everyone’s personal truth is based on their own experiences. (Oh, and the Tower District crime stats also show decreases in both violent and property crime during 2018. So scratch that theory.)

If you’re someone who had his car broken into while attending a concert at Selland Arena or a baseball game at Chukchansi Park, your attitude toward downtown Fresno will likely be a certain way — regardless what the stats say.

But if you’re someone who had a pleasant experience downtown, or wants to see new restaurants, bars, retail stores and lofts, the stats reinforce things are getting safer.

Crime deterrence in downtown Fresno begins at 7 a.m., which is when Sgt. Alfonso Castillo reports to work.

Castillo heads up the Downtown Police Unit, part of Fresno PD’s Southwest District. The all-volunteer unit consists of Castillo and five officers who patrol by bicycle and squad car.

The DPU typically works a day shift. But when there are evening events, such as ArtHop or a Fresno FC match, officers flex their shifts and others are brought in from patrol to bolster the ranks.

“It takes the right officer who understands the importance of downtown and doesn’t mind working weekends and sometimes working nights,” Castillo said. “And not get deterred with the fact that you’re going to be arresting the same suspect perhaps throughout the year. We have to keep it up.”

Most of the crimes in downtown Fresno are committed by the same people over and over, Castillo said. Police know who these people are. So they track court appearances, release dates and serve friendly reminders.

“So that the moment they get out we go say hello. ‘We’re still here. Nothing has changed,’ “ Castillo said. “That happens, actually, on a daily basis.”

With their bikes at the ready, Sgt. Alfonso Castillo, right, conducts a morning briefing with members of the Downtown Police Unit, Feb. 28, 2019. JOHN WALKER

It isn’t just police. The DPU works with two private security companies hired by the Downtown Fresno Partnership to do nightly patrols of streets, parking lots and garages.

The work is coordinated. For example, if private security sees a homeless-looking person sleeping in a garage, they’ll snap his or her picture and send it to the DPU as part of a nightly report. From the photo, Castillo and his officers can tell if this person has a history of breaking into vehicles.

In addition, downtown Fresno has the largest concentration of video surveillance cameras in the city including about 25 new cameras on Fulton Street. The DPU, in conjunction with department investigators, uses the footage to write search and arrest warrants.

“With more people coming downtown, the more proactive and aggressive we need to be investigating crime,” Castillo said.

Community policing also plays a part. The DPU doesn’t just drive by in patrol cars peering through mirrored sunglasses. While on bikes, officers are visible and approachable. Through interactions with business owners and residents, officers have built relationships and trust.

“We’ve gotten to know a lot of the cops on a first-name basis, which is great,” Kirk James said. “It adds to the overall feeling of safety.”

I’m guessing the co-owner of Root General would feel differently if the windows of his business had been smashed over and over and his merchandise stolen. Like what happened to the owner of Fulton Cycle Works, now located in Hanford.

Which is why crime stats, just by themselves, will never convince the naysayers that downtown Fresno is safe. You have to go there, walk around a bit and experience for yourself.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.