Homicide rates are rising citywide, but so far this year 26 out of 69 homicides in San Antonio, 38%, have taken place in the Eastside.
Monday marked the third homicide in the area over a five-day period, the latest example of the recent uptick in Eastside crime. The ebb and flow of crime is not new for residents who say waves of shootings, theft, and deaths have always been part of daily life in the Eastside.
It is not abnormal to hear gunshots in the middle of the night.
“It’s not like crime just appeared, it’s something that has been occurring for decades. We never really solve the conditions that (cause) crime,” said Brian Dillard, president of the Eastside’s Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association (DHNA).
The San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) has been conducting walking patrols of “hotspot” areas throughout the last few months when crime rates increased, but this has proven to be a short term fix.
“Back in February we had another (crime) wave come through, the cops came to cover it, and it went down for a month,” Dillard said. “(But) when they reallocated resources to another side of town, the crime came right back up within a week.”
Violent crime seems to be on the rise not just on the Eastside, but in different areas of the city and the U.S., said SAPD Sgt. Jesse Salame.
Salame said that law enforcement hasn’t been able to pin down a specific reason for the recent increase in homicides on the Eastside. The waves of crime are due to varying scenarios, he said. The most recent bouts of murders involved domestic violence and drugs.
“It’s people (mostly) involved in illegal activity, but we’ve had some victims that have been completely random,” Salame said. “A convenience store person was killed in a robbery weeks ago on the central side of town, and we had two victims of domestic violence.”
There were 51 homicides in San Antonio in the first half of last year. Halfway through 2016, there have been 69. Salame acknowledged the increase and said that SAPD has expanded patrols and specialized street crime units directed to the most violent areas.
SAPD’s San Antonio Fear Free Environment (SAFFE) officers are assigned to specific neighborhoods in the city to identify and evaluate crime. These trained officers work closely with residents and patrol officers assigned to the area, and maintain day-to-day interaction to prevent crimes before they happen.
Dillard said all officers should interact more with the community in this way. Officers who are aware of the area’s history can more quickly identify situations that may escalate to violence, he said, and the neighborhood needs more of them in order to quench the embers of crime before they ignite and wreak havoc on the community.
SAPD has solved about 75% of its cases, “we are doing a good job clearing the cases, but still figuring out how to stem the violence.”
SAPD will continue to assign more cops to high crime areas, Salame added, and will try to engage the community in order to have “an ear to the ground, so people can tell us when things are about to happen so we can solve the cases.”
Dillard said the real crime hotspots are on Nolan Street and the New Braunfels Corridor. The Handy Stop Convenience Store on 627 N. New Braunfels Ave. has become a hotbed of violence and crime for the last two years despite several clean-up and community engagement events hosted there.
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“Individuals loiter around the area and it’s a good drug dealing spot because there’s a lot of traffic by there,” Dillard said. “There were two shootings there in the past few weeks and at another corner store in Wheatley Courts,” part of the federal Promise Zone and Choice Neighborhood designations.
Handy Stop is adjacent to a community garden in the area, which makes the scenario even more grim. Through Gardopia, community gardens have popped up on the Eastside with the mission of combatting crime through education, community building, and enhancing the neighborhood.
In addition to community gardens, neighborhood associations and community leaders have implemented initiatives aimed at transforming the lives and physical infrastructure of Eastside residents.
Deeper into the Eastside, the Resurgence Collaborative is a one-stop shop of re-entry programs for people emerging from the criminal justice system.
The DHNA has put together basketball tournaments to engage the community and bring teenagers and children together in healthy activity. SAPD Chief William McManus and his police officers have been avid supporters of district initiatives supported by Councilman Alan Warrick (D2), such as friendly neighborhood basketball tournaments.
The Dignowity Park Project, lead by Public Space East and the San Antonio Parks Foundation, proposes to combine Lockwood and Dignowity parks to create a nine-acre park with more trees and bike and hike trails. The project places an emphasis on stripping the area of hidden “enclaves” where crime has mushroomed in the past.
The reduction of crime through community basketball, gardens, revitalized parks, and more spaces for community engagement is making a difference, but it’s just not enough, Dillard said. In order to reach those problem areas and bring people together, one must “get uncomfortable in your neighborhood.”
As a lifelong resident of the area, Dillard believes the problem can’t be solved unless the community starts to focus on the root causes of crime and its after-effects. The issues have more to do with generational poverty, a lack of affordable housing, and poor education, he said.
“We need to direct our energy into our schools, community centers, and our neighbors and be vigilant about every component in our community,” Dillard said. “You have to become the community leader, you can’t depend (solely) on a councilman, SAPD, or the DHNA president, you have to be a catalyst for change.
“We need to hold local schools accountable. We complain about property taxes, but 80% of that goes to the school district. But when do we go to a school board meeting? Crime is a result of the situation.”
Change the situation, change the outcome.
Warrick echoes Dillard’s suggestions.
“As to long term solutions, it’s definitely education and more job opportunities,” Warrick said. “Education is what really turns the tide; when people have dreams and they can seize them, the possibilities are endless.
“We’re on the right track in neighborhoods like Dignowity Hill, they are already doing a lot, improving the community, creating events, working towards goals. (What we) need is more engaged neighborhoods, (beyond) Dignowity Hill.”
Not all areas have active neighborhood associations. He worries that those residents’ voices aren’t being heard.
“The police are working but they can only do so much, it takes neighbors to come together (to work) on these solutions and make something happen.”
“We need to start tying into the rougher parts,” Dillard said. “People won’t go past the brown signs (that delineate the historic district). Our job now is to reach out to the other 50% that is not in the historic area because the further away from downtown you get the worse it gets.
“Block walking is the best way. We need to start engaging community members, empowering them, going door to door and figuring this out as a group and not as individuals.”
From a police standpoint, Salame agrees.
“That’s our biggest hurdle: not enforcement, but community engagement – getting people to participate with us to try and keep the neighborhood safe,” he said.
A small victory was won Wednesday when SAPD contacted Eastside community leaders to let them know that they finally arrested a man that has been burglarizing the neighborhood for weeks.
“This has been a long time coming and it wouldn’t have happened if not for the vigilance and persistence of you, neighbors,” stated Dillard in an email sent to Dignowity Hill residents. “Thank you to SAPD-East for staying on the hunt for this guy. We look forward to working with them to further reduce crime in our neighborhood.”
Top image: Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association President Brian Dillard stands in front of one of the hottest crime spots in San Antonio, Handy Stop Convenience Store on 627 North New Braunfels Avenue. Photo by Scott Ball.