Before San Diego banned alcohol from its beaches, Police Chief Bill Lansdowne expressed his opposition to the proposal and issued a warning. The heavy drinkers who amass during summer holidays won’t go away, he said. They’ll move inland, away from beefed up beach patrols, and make it harder for police to monitor crime.
“The group that wants to drink and party will go somewhere else,” Lansdowne said at the time. “On the beach there are no windows to break or fires to start. It’s pretty easy to manage.”
Three years later, crime statistics appear to support Lansdowne’s forecast. Alcohol-related crime fell in beach communities after the ban and climbed elsewhere in San Diego, according to a voiceofsandiego.org analysis of police statistics. Citywide, alcohol-related crime continued a rise that started years before the ban.
Police reported nearly the same number of alcohol-related crimes each year for beach and inland communities before the ban and diverging trends after. Five years ago, one-third of the city’s alcohol-related crimes happened in four beach communities. Last year, one-quarter.
And here’s the big irony: Beach communities such as Ocean Beach that opposed the ban now have less alcohol-related crime while many inland communities that supported it, such as Rancho Bernardo, now have more.
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Though San Diegans debated banning alcohol from beaches for decades, the current policy gained traction after a drunken melee in Pacific Beach on Labor Day four years ago. The episode made national headlines. City Council members called it an embarrassment to San Diego’s reputation and the following January, they implemented a temporary alcohol ban for all city beaches.
Lansdowne opposed the ban, even after the Labor Day fight. He stuck by his position that it would drive crime inland and make it harder for police to monitor. But he promised to enforce the policy regardless of his personal opinion. During the debate, supporters called Lansdowne’s concerns baseless while opponents highlighted his warning to the City Council.
Voters narrowly approved a permanent ban in November 2008, 10 months after the City Council’s temporary ban went into effect. Supporters heralded it as the best way to fight crime in beach neighborhoods and prevent another incident like the Labor Day brawl.
The ban has largely succeeded in that goal. There have been no big fights during the busy summer holidays and alcohol-related crime has fallen in three of the four neighborhoods that ballot measure supporters identified as the problem. It dropped by 3 percent in Ocean Beach, 21 percent in Pacific Beach and 34 percent in Mission Beach. It went up by 7 percent in Mission Bay Park.
But elsewhere in the city, police have reported escalating crime. Comparing three years before the ban and three years after, the number of alcohol-related crimes increased in 92 police beats, which roughly follow San Diego neighborhood boundaries, and shrunk in 31.
Police include 72 different crimes in the broad category of alcohol-related crime. Some of the most common offenses are drunken driving, open container, public drunkenness and underage drinking. Though alcohol may be involved in other crimes, such as a robbery, those are not included.
Alcohol-related crime increased by 9 percent in Rancho Bernardo, which supported the ballot measure by the largest margin of any neighborhood in the city (64 percent of voters). It grew by 50 percent in San Ysidro, which supported the ballot measure by the third largest margin (61 percent of voters).
The contrast between crime trends and the election results is especially stark in southeastern San Diego, where nearly all precincts voted for the ban. Alcohol-related crime grew by more than 40 percent in Lincoln Park, Mountain View, Shelltown and Skyline. In Valencia Park, it grew by 76 percent.
In San Diego, any sign of rising crime raises eyebrows because it’s the opposite trajectory of violent and property crimes, which police more often cite as indicators of crime trends. As violent and property crimes fell to decade lows in recent years with much fanfare, alcohol-related crime has continued to trickle upward without much public attention.
Like any statistical trend though, it’s worth noting that the strength of the correlation between alcohol-related crime and the beach ban is unclear. The shifts could represent changing community behaviors since the ban, other factors unrelated to the ban, changing police practices or more likely, some combination of all three.
A modified police presence is one possible factor. As alcohol-related crime fell near the beach after the ban, police sent more officers to address crime inland, Police Department spokeswoman Lt. Andra Brown said. That shift led to more citations and arrests for inland communities and therefore higher rates of reported alcohol-related crime.
“The problems have always existed elsewhere,” Brown said. “Now we just have the resources to deal with them.”
Only in recent years, for example, police have started conducting monthly curfew sweeps in southeastern neighborhoods and City Heights. By actively arresting more children for curfew violations, it is possible that police have also arrested more children for alcohol-related offenses like underage possession.
Police say the growth of bar scenes in North Park and the East Village has also contributed to more crime for inland communities. The two neighborhoods accounted for the greatest number of additional alcohol-related crimes in the city, each rising by 41 percent since the ban. North Park has already added a bike team to bolster weekend patrols  near the bars.
And DUI checkpoints further complicate the correlation. Police started doing checkpoints again a couple years ago when grant funding became available. The checkpoints are routinely spread across the city, including beach communities, but may account for more reported crimes in neighborhoods like San Ysidro, which previously had no DUI checkpoints.
City Council President Tony Young, though he voted against the ban, wasn’t convinced that it had moved alcohol-related crime inland. He said the economy’s collapse in 2008 could have also contributed to changes in community behavior unrelated to banning alcohol from beaches. The rising crime on its own is significant, he said, but perhaps not its link to the ban.
“It’s really hard to make that correlation,” he said. “I’m not sure how many people from Mountain View said, ‘I’m not going to surf today and just drink at home instead.'”
Young said the effectiveness of curbing crime at the beach has also made him rethink his opposition to the ban. He didn’t say he now favors the ban, but left the window open.
“For me, my argument has always been, is the opportunity to express your freedom more significant than the increase in crime? It’s a balance we all have to consider,” he said.
City Councilman Kevin Faulconer, who represents the beach communities and pushed for the alcohol ban after the 2007 Labor Day brawl, was unavailable to comment. His spokesman, Tony Manolatos, called the ban an overwhelming success that the councilman would never support undoing.