Ocean Beach Turns Out for a Town Hall on Arson and Vandalism

by on January 17, 2018 · 9 comments

in Ocean Beach

The crowd at the OB Town Hall meeting, Jan. 16, 2018. Photos by Frank Gormlie

Driving into the parking lot at the OB Masonic Center right off Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, I knew there was going to be a large crowd at the town hall meeting called by a variety of Ocean Beach groups to talk about all the arson and vandalism that’s been going on. I also realized there was no more parking due to all the police and private security patrol cars and television vans taking up any extra spaces. I was 5 minutes late already.

Finding a spot on Santa Cruz, I took one last gulp of my coffee and walked quickly into the large meeting room. After a few brief hellos to some of those standing at the back of the room, like Jon Carr, Dave Martin, Jim Musgrove, I grabbed a metal chair in one of the last rows.

Having missed the very beginning of the meeting, I could hear Community Relations officer Dave Surwilo speaking about police call times.

The place was packed. Just about every chair was taken and there was a dozen locals standing in the back. Up at the front of the room behind a conference table sat a number of OB community leaders, including John Ambert – head of the OB Planning Board, Julie Klein – OB Mainstreet activist, and Marcus Turner – VP of the OB Town Council. Standing was Gio Ingolia, of the OB Town Council, chairing the gathering, making intros and fielding questions.

I counted 4 TV camera crews, half a dozen uniformed officers – SD police and fire, a handful of uniformed private security guys – and a couple of city reps.

Then I fairly carefully counted the crowd – those seated came to 85 to 100. Add in those standing – excluding city, media, or private cops – I came up with 100 to 120. (Compare this with the Fox5 estimate of 50; the San Diego U-T’s number of 75 ; 7NBC didn’t give a number.)

Crowd numbers are important – just ask Donald Trump. Just ask the women who planned last year’s Women’s March the day after his inauguration.

Okay, in comparison, the town hall meeting was smaller than the turn-out at one of the ‘no Target in OB’ forums. There were 200 in attendance at the August 2, 2017 forum hosted by the OB Planning Board, and was about the same size as the August 23, 2017 forum on Target put together by the OB Town Council.

But I digress.

Police Lt. Matt Dobbs was talking about the series of arson fires. Most, he said, were set between midnight and 6am. Surwilo chimed in, “we’re all about looking out for each other,” and urged people to watch out for their neighbors. Surwilo referred to a sheet left on each chair that contained a series of recommendations and steps to take to make one’s property safer, like lock-up bikes, propane tanks, grills, trash cans, put up cameras, trim overgrown vegetation. These were all reasonable and common-sense. (See below for copies)

Surwilo continued – he told the crowd that “the best source” to get info on what’s going on is to go to crimemapping.com. He said it’s mainly accurate – but does generalize for privacy reasons for some of the crimes (like “assault” for domestic violence) when it takes in police reports. You can go back one year, he said, in 3 month increments.

Next Gio introduced Adriana from Crime Stoppers, who said her network “was another tool” and people could call them if they wished to remain anonymous, or ddidn’t want to call the police.  Adriana announced that Crime Stoppers is offering a reward of up to $1,000 for information that leads to an arrest and conviction. Tipsters can call the Crime Stoppers anonymous line at (888) 580-8477, or visit their website at sdcrimestoppers.com.

She strayed off track for a moment, and stated, “If you see your neighbors doing something illegal,” to call Crime Stoppers. Wait a minute, I thought. Neighbors are not suspects in any of the arson fires and doubtfully in the tire slashings. This is about taking care of your neighbors – not spying on them. Adriana then did add, “like narcotic sales,” and then quickly added, “If you see a crime in progress – call 9-1-1.”

Standing L to R: Gio Ingolia, 3 NPS officers, Denny Knox.

Ingolia moved the meeting on. He called for Denny Knox, head of the OB Mainstreet Association, one of the hosts of the town hall, to introduce the National Public Safety officers. “Over the last few years,” Knox said, “we had problems n the commercial district” with an uptick in crimes and complaints. The OBMA hired one group – that didn’t work out. Then they hired the private security firm of National Public Safety. “And it’s been,” she said, “2 and a half, 3 years now – and we’re really pleased with the level of service we get.”

Knox then explained the set-up. Merchants donate to the firm and the OBMA matches the donations. “We have a good percentage of merchants that donate,” she said.

The NPS 2-man crews principally patrol the business districts – and the beach, she said. “Crime,” she continued, “is the most pressing issue for the community. If people are afraid, or feel unsafe” coming to OB or the commercial areas – that’s a big problem.

One of the NPS uniformed men spoke. NPS answers all calls, he said – and check out the source of the complaint. His crews deal with crimes such as shoplifting and vagrancy, but also perform traffic advisories and even life-saving and CPR. If needed, they call the SDPD – and they’re not in conflict with 9-1-1, he said.

Fielding questions, Denny and the NPS rep had to explain that they don’t’ want residents calling the NPS officers – as only merchants and the OBMA are paying their bills. Denny suggested the OBTC join the setup.

A guy in the audience complained that the Cliffs need attention, that they’re “getting destroyed with graffiti and all the drugs”. He asked, “Who’s patrolling the cliffs?”  Again Denny emphasized that the NPS is for the commercial district, and added that some members of the OBMA are property owners or managers, so at times NPS patrol cars go into the residential areas.

Another uniformed NPS agent broke in and stated, “We’re not 24 – 7.” But the other agent offered that they are about 80 “man-hours a week”.

“What is success?” a man asked from the back of the room. “I see an increase in the homeless sleeping on the streets,” even after all the years that NPS has been patrolling. “Where is the success?” he asked, and then “do you have numbers?”

The main NPS guy quickly answered, “We have numbers – we give them to the merchants board.” And then Denny added, “We don’t publish them – but you could see them” – offering to show him at her office.

The guy then asked, “Do you patrol at night at all?” – but his question wasn’t answered.

Knox recounted how the City has never cleaned out the San Diego Riverbed before – and now that they have, OB is being inundated with homeless people. “Why, it’s just ballooned,” she said, “a lot come to OB.”

“It’s the worst I’ve seen it and I’ve been here since ’66,” Denny concluded. At this point I wanted to shout out ‘but we now have the 4th largest homeless population in the country! There’s over 9,000 homeless people in the County!’

It is true, though, as the City kicks the homeless out of downtown, then kicks them out of the riverbed – it’s not magic they end up in Ocean Beach – it’s not a mystery.

The NPS guy continued, “We meet with San Diego [police] once a week. We have a system that works well.”

Chair Ingolia then introduced both Anthony George from Mayor Faulconer’s office and Conrad Wear from Councilwoman Lori Zapf’s office, who both had things like this to say, ‘we’re with you, we understand, we doing the right things’.  George kept saying the Mayor is taking a “tough love” approach to the issue of homelessness. Of course, neither Faulconer nor Zapf were at the meeting.

Hmmm, I thought, where are the candidates for District 2 council seat? It would have been a perfect time to get to know the issues and problems of the Peninsula. But no Bryan Pease, no Jen Campbell. At least Jordan Beane had a guy passing out his literature.

Someone suggested the town council reinstate periodic community clean-ups to get rid of all the trash in the alleys- the kind someone is setting fire to.

Ingolia announced the OB Town Council was also offering a reward of $1,000 for the conviction of whomever is responsible for the fires and vandalism. He then introduced Greg Crowley of Clean Streets Initiative – OB who spoke of the clean-up his group is sponsoring this coming weekend – on January 20th.

CSI- OB, Crowley said, was started about 7 years ago. “We do 4 clean-ups a year” he said. “We average about 2 to 300 pounds of trash a clean-up”, and “we assign people to specific areas.” Come out and meet at Pizza Port this Saturday from 9 to noon.

Crowley was the last speaker. Gio – and then Julie Klein – thanked the crowd. It was over, but there was still lots of energy; knots of people stayed around discussing things for a long time – and Priscilla Turner had to blink the overhead lights several times to clear the place out.

My coffee was cold by now. It wasn’t really that late. I gathered my papers and tried to find people I knew. It had been a good turn-out and I congratulated Marcus and Gio and Julie – who said she’s retiring.

To the list of Prevention Tips, I would add a Number 10:

Call or contact every politician who represents you and do a citizen’s lobby to get more funding for homeless facilities, more police, more fire, more infrastructure, from City Council, to Mayor, to the County Supervisor, to the State Assembly, State Senate, Governor, Congressional rep and Senator.

Here’s the 1 page Arson and Vandalism Prevention Tips:

Here’s a blow up of the tips:

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie January 17, 2018 at 7:40 pm
Obkid January 17, 2018 at 9:16 pm

The homeless aren’t causing the fires…an arsonist is.

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NPS help January 17, 2018 at 9:48 pm

From my experience living near the main street district the private security, NPS, has done a great job simply pushing all the problems one block away from the commercial properties that pay them; it seems the goal is to make the tourist area look good at the expense of all of us locals that live nearby. Tourist and business dollars win out again.

Interesting quote
“Again Denny emphasized that the NPS is for the commercial district, and added that some members of the OBMA are property owners or managers, so at times NPS patrol cars go into the residential areas.” –>

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K.B. January 18, 2018 at 3:10 am

I spoke to the police after the meeting suggesting that when police, especially multiple police cars, come back from a call, say an accident at the cliffs, that they all take different routes back. It could be helpful and add more of a presence in having random police cars going up allies and streets they normally don’t patrol. It would be good PR and not cost anything more. On top of that it may discurage crime!

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Bryan Pease January 18, 2018 at 10:10 am

I was in a different room of about 100 people that same night–the San Diego Democratic Central Committee. We were actually supposed to have an endorsement vote for D2, but the Central Area the night before could not come up with a recommendation for who to endorse , so Central Committee voted to pull it from the agenda for now. As an elected delegate though, I needed to stay for the rest of the meeting and was there until about 9:30pm.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie January 18, 2018 at 10:37 am

Thanks for getting back.

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Geoff Page January 18, 2018 at 12:00 pm

Hat tip to Frank for this story, unfortunately none of his Rag Tag group of contributors were able to attend and cover this for him saving him the trip. I loved this part:

“…Anthony George from Mayor Faulconer’s office and Conrad Wear from Councilwoman Lori Zapf’s office, who both had things like this to say, ‘we’re with you, we understand, we doing the right things’. George kept saying the Mayor is taking a “tough love” approach to the issue of homelessness.”

It’s always about them – the politicians they represent – and they don’t say or do anything.

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Kathy January 18, 2018 at 6:27 pm

I went. Usual dog & pony show, tight-lipped lip service. Vague reference that # of arsons is “less than 10.” Really?

Crime Mapping was promoted to uninformed residents at the meeting. I check it routinely & question its accuracy. There are 7 arson fires shown from 12/7/17 – 1/17/18.

These fires started 12/1 in an alley off Muir & Ebers, pictures were posted on Crime Watch, SDFD was called, SDGE said the building could’ve blown up due to proximity to gas meters. Does SDFD communicate with SDPD? It wasn’t on Crime Map.

12/11/17 SDPD FINALLY issued a bulletin & local news published a story about OB arson fires, alleged to have been in a series beginning 12/7 . Two listed aren’t on Crime Map so I presume the following were determined not to be arson after all:

12/7/17 7 pm: Alley @Orchard & Santa Barbara … $1,000 damage to older motor home.

12/11/17 2:10 am: Alley @ Santa Cruz & Santa Barbara Street … flames spread to back yard causing $4,000 damages.

Would it impede the investigation to provide a visual … a map & updated list?
Is “less than 10” actually “7” as shown on Crime Mapping?

There were at least 1/2 dozen OB arson victims in the audience, only one spoke up. Then things got interesting. He wondered why a mattress was dragged to his fence & set on fire when the arsonist could’ve lit it up by the door it was resting. He asked to be put in touch with other victims to compare notes, look for similarities … that’s when all their hands shot up. The grand finale was when he said the burnt mattress was still in his alley almost 2 weeks later.

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Dan beeman January 18, 2018 at 8:36 pm

oops, member and FUNDER of San Diego River Foundation.

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