By C. Jayden Smith
When deputies with the Targeting, Investigation, Reduction and Prevention team, or TRIP, patrolled the Talega community earlier this month, they came across a vehicle that was believed to be connected to burglaries that have occurred in the area this year.
According to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, the driver of the vehicle failed to stop for the deputies, leading to a pursuit that ended when the car collided with the center median near La Pata and Calle Saluda on the evening of Oct. 12.
During the time it took to set up a perimeter with a helicopter and deputies from surrounding cities, three of the passengers escaped the scene into the undeveloped canyon area while one of the individuals was detained on the scene, according to OCSD.
One of the individuals who fled was eventually caught and arrested. The two arrested were positively identified as foreign nationals after initially giving false names and information, Capt. Tony Benfield, chief of San Clemente Police Services, told San Clemente Times.
Inside the vehicle, police found burglary tools and “possible stolen property,” according to OCSD.
Since January, there have been 10 residential burglaries in San Clemente’s Talega neighborhood. According to Benfield, OCSD has seen reports of burglaries across the city rise to their previous levels from before the pandemic—when more people were at home and there were fewer burglaries.
“I think in 2019, we had 72 residential burglaries … in all of San Clemente, and as of the 10th of October, we had 70,” Benfield last week. “That’s because what we’re seeing across the states is that certain crimes, certain assaults, and certain thefts have increased since the beginning of the pandemic.”
With the string of burglaries and a general rise in crime in the city and beyond, residents’ concerns have heightened dramatically, according to city officials.
The solution to lowering crime and victimization revolves around a community effort, Benfield said.
Benfield recommended that residents form neighborhood watches around the city, actively be involved and get to know their neighbors, and become each other’s eyes and ears. He called the situation a “mathematics issue” in that there weren’t enough deputies to cover every house in the city, thus requiring a force multiplier by residents.
“We really need people to engage with us, to learn the methods that they can take on their own to protect their property, and then to actually employ those methods to help deter crime,” Benfield said.
Violent incidents that recently occurred around Max Berg Plaza Park and the burglaries in Talega have prompted local authorities to address the developments publicly through various forums such as a town hall held in Talega on Sept. 21 and a City Council meeting on Oct. 4.
Discussions over the safety of the community will continue this coming Wednesday evening, Oct. 26, when councilmembers will hold a Public Safety Town Hall in the Council Chambers of City Hall, at 910 Calle Negocio, starting at 6 p.m.
ADDRESSING CITYWIDE CONCERNS
During the council’s Oct. 4 meeting, the conversation was originally intended to center on city and Police Services measures to make Max Berg Park and the surrounding neighborhood safer, but the council voted to broaden the debate after Mayor Pro Tem Chris Duncan expressed a desire to address citywide concerns.
Mayor Gene James referenced a meeting he attended with Orange County leaders, including Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, Sheriff Don Barnes, Fifth District Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, and legal counsel, that centered on public safety but was not certain to produce tangible results.
By James’ account of the meeting, he said that Barnes and legal counsel suggested building a homeless shelter that would help deputes enforce the city’s laws.
Under the Martin v. City of Boise ruling, cities and authorities are barred from enforcing certain laws such as anti-camping ordinances unless “adequate indoor shelter” for the homeless is offered.
James said though that such construction was not going to happen.
“With all that being said, this council—this dais—has the responsibility for the safety and welfare of people in our city, and people are scared,” the mayor said. “I’m getting calls all the time, I’m getting emails all the time.”
It was during the early October meeting that the council voted to organize the upcoming town hall meant to discuss how residents can protect themselves from becoming victims of criminal activity.
Residents, James said, need the opportunity to listen to Benfield.
“Also, there’s going to be some spears pointed at us, but we need to give them the opportunity to vent, as well,” he said. “The one thing we need to do in this City of San Clemente that we love so much (is), we can’t allow people to be fearful of walking our streets or walking our Beach Trail.”
James added that the council needed to address the perception of crime in a “special” city in which people chose to live. Duncan supported James’ stance and highlighted his family’s decision to move to neighborhoods such as Talega, as others have, with the belief that their children could play out in the streets and still be safe.
“The problem is, we’ve gotten to the point where people don’t see something happening, they don’t notice something happening, (but) the crime keeps occurring,” said Duncan. “Then they start to get really worried that they’re left defenseless.”
Duncan referred to the Talega town hall wherein Orange County Sheriff’s Department detectives addressed the what-was-then eight burglaries that have occurred in Talega since the beginning of 2022.
OCSD officials talked to homeowners about locking property gates, windows and sliding doors, maximizing visibility with landscaping and lighting. They also recommended tips targeted at protecting homes from burglaries.
Duncan said he didn’t think the meeting accomplished the level of communication for San Clemente residents that a town hall would.
Councilmember Steven Knoblock said perception was reality regarding the current disposition around town on crime, and that the city was not facing the same level of incidents two years ago.
Without naming specific legislation or measures, Knoblock blamed government policies that he believes have allowed more immigrants to cross the United States’ southern border.
Knoblock also touched on groups of—what OCSD officials have recently referred to as—South American theft gangs who carry out burglaries in a similar fashion to what has been reported out of the Talega neighborhood.
Benfield emphasized a different message from the town hall to SC Times this past week, saying that deputies were still noticing open garage doors and interior doors, which provide windows of opportunity for theft groups to carry out successful burglaries in a short period.
“Rather than focus on who it is, focus on what you can do to protect your home from anyone that would want to come in,” he said. “One of the biggest problems we’re seeing is that there’s just too much valuables, jewelry and cash laying out in people’s homes.”
Benfield recommended people buy safes, bolt them down, and keep them locked, as valuables can be stolen when safes are left open for convenient everyday access.
FUNDING POLICE SERVICES
Knoblock, who’s running for reelection in November, added that the city needed to encourage law enforcement and support increased deputy presence in neighborhoods and having town halls to get ahead of the problem, as well as voting for policy-making politicians that care about law enforcement.
Councilmember Kathy Ward asked Benfield earlier this month whether his department still had deputies assigned to monitoring and posting on social media—to which Benfield clarified that there are—and if the department had been updating the public on the recent burglaries.
Benfield said his staff would meet on Oct. 5 to plan how to inform the public about safety in relation to the current situation, and advised people to follow the San Clemente Police Services’ Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts where the department consistently posts.
Most recently, the department used its social media accounts to post about the recent arrests made in connection with the Talega burglaries, as well as home safety tips.
Benfield also spoke about the TRIP team, comprising two deputies who have helped to increase patrol checks and contacts with subjects around Max Berg Park.
After Ward asked Benfield to speak to the recommendation he made in the city’s agenda report that the city should not increase deputy resources specific to covering Max Berg Plaza Park, Benfield said that while he didn’t want to create “haves” and “have-nots,” he recognized the council’s desire to respond to citizens’ valid concerns.
“In doing so, I know it puts (the council) in a tricky position, because here I am saying that we shouldn’t tie resources to one specific community because, as we know, crime trends change,” he said. “Crime is transient. It might be at North Beach one day and it might be in Talega the next.”
On whether to increase citywide police spending, Benfield recommended giving time to gauge the effectiveness of increased patrols as the typical season for heightened gang activity was nearly over.
He also mentioned the convenience of being able to distribute resources and deputies’ time where necessary, such as moving on to address the Talega area.
Speaking to Duncan’s comments on increasing the city’s public safety budget, if necessary, Ward said the council should follow staff and Benfield’s recommendations and not randomly decide when to add more resources.
Duncan said his goal was only to get direction from city staff and from Benfield on how the city could best ensure that adequate resources were provided to cover recently afflicted neighborhoods of concern.
“(Police Services gets) to make the operational call,” Duncan said. “I agree, I’m not relitigating the whole contract. I’m just saying whatever resources or direction or assistance that (Police Services needs) from us to get a task force out there or direct resources from outside of our area, if necessary, (they) have our support.”
Councilmember Laura Ferguson thanked Benfield for the education and communication OCSD officials provided at the Talega meeting and suggested sending out newsletters that would inform residents and encourage neighborhood watch groups around town.
She also recommended increasing deputies in San Clemente, especially to address “hot spots” and the downtown and coastal areas that include businesses and a high density of housing.
Duncan said that with Benfield’s statements, he wanted to simply direct Interim City Manager Sean Joyce to support Police Services in “whatever form” necessary to make the city safe.
James also favored using city resources when the city had to, but expressed caution given that $21.3 million, or 26.2%, of the General Fund expenditures for Fiscal Year 2022-2023 was allocated for Police Services—more than half of all public safety spending.
“I want to secure the town, absolutely, and if we have to spend more money, we have to spend more money,” James said. “But we have another item coming up in a moment in regards to our unfunded (pension) liability, and we’ve got to be very careful on how we spend that money.”
For residents, Benfield recommended installing an alarm system, motion lights, and protective window film, as well as attending National Night Out from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 24.
“It’s going to be us and all of our partners in public safety, and we’re going to have a bunch of equipment out there,” he said. “There’ll be demonstrations and a good chance for the community to come and ask any specific questions they might have about public safety.”
C. Jayden Smith
C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.