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Blame game 

There are theories but scant evidence about why violent crime in downtown San Luis Obispo recently increased

UP A CREEK :  Jeffrey Berrett, 25, and Meghan Gross, 23, both from Arizona, are suspected of beating and robbing a San Luis Obispo man on Dec. 13. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • COURTESY PHOTO
  • UP A CREEK : Jeffrey Berrett, 25, and Meghan Gross, 23, both from Arizona, are suspected of beating and robbing a San Luis Obispo man on Dec. 13.
click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO
  • COURTESY PHOTO
As 26-year-old Phillip Hauser walked home from a friend’s house in the early hours of Dec. 13, he could little suspect a chance conversation along the way would send him to the hospital: Hauser fell victim to a brutal attack and robbery allegedly involving a bottle, a piece of wood, and a dog.

San Luis Obispo police say two vagrants from Arizona attacked Hauser around 5 a.m. as he walked along the railroad tracks adjacent to Phillips Lane and Pepper Street.

According to police reports, Hauser encountered Jeffrey Berrett, 25, and Meghan Gross, who’s 23. Reports show Hauser had a brief conversation with the pair before they turned on him, allegedly beating him with a bottle and a piece of wood. Police say Berrett and Gross then stole Hauser’s cell phone and wallet from his pockets.

Police reported finding Berrett and Gross nearby, with what appeared to be the alleged victim’s blood splattered on their clothes and boots. They were arrested on suspicion of robbery and assault with a deadly weapon, and, as of this printing, are both being held in county jail on $30,000 bail.

The incident is the latest in a recent string of violent assaults and robberies in a city more accustomed to petty noise infractions and alcohol violations than to violent crime.

But this year has been tough for law enforcement in San Luis Obispo. Assaults and robberies are up. Historically, most such crimes were committed in the downtown sector in the late night and early morning hours. But in 2009, violence has boiled over to surrounding neighborhoods and has occurred in broad daylight.

October was an especially violent month. The city was outraged by a brazen, seemingly unprovoked attack on a 15-year old girl who was shopping with her mother downtown Oct. 3, which left the girl with a broken jaw. On Oct. 16, Joshua Brown of SLO was walking near the corner of California Blvd. and Stafford St. when he was struck from behind and knocked unconscious. When he revived, he found he had been robbed, according to police reports. Nathan Moore, a 21-year old SLO resident, was sent to the intensive care unit at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center after witnesses saw a white male punch him in the face on Oct. 28.

The city has a historically low incidence of violent crime compared to other California municipalities, so the sharp spike in violence has dismayed police and business owners and unnerved residents. 

“We have been enjoying a decrease in incidents over the last couple of years. But now I think we’ve either leveled out or even increased,” SLO Police Captain Ian Parkinson told New Times. “It’s been a busier year. I don’t know if it’s economy-based or we’ve just had a full moon or what. I wish I had an answer, but as far as I can tell it’s just spiked.”

There’s scant evidence the crimes are related but that hasn’t stopped conjecture. According to police, increased complaints of aggressive panhandling and harassment by young transients have coincided with the spike in crime.

“It’s definitely gotten much, much worse,” said San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce President David Garth. “We have been getting complaints from many—and I mean many—tourists that aggressive panhandling is the main reason they’re never coming back to SLO.”

Garth said it’s a tough call when it comes to people who lack shelter, because the majority of them are locals who need a hand. “However, there’s a new crowd of younger, more aggressive people wandering around, traveling in packs and really scaring people, many of whom I know for a fact have chosen that lifestyle,” he said.

Parkinson confirmed his department has also received more complaints against who appear to be vagrants.

“Yes, we have a younger transient population than we’ve seen in the past and there’s definitely been more complaints. But [SLOPD is] targeting behavior, not people,” Parkinson said. “We have a significant number of homeless that we never deal with because they have no behavioral problems and obey the laws.”

As violence has increased, the police may have lost some of their closest allies—the owners and staff of city bars and restaurants. A recent study funded by the city tied a portion of the increase in police incidents—assaults included—to Alcoholic Beverage Control licensed establishments. In response, the tacit policy at several of those businesses is to keep quiet unless there’s a dire emergency.

The police department is discussing strategies to increase patrols in the downtown area. Parkinson said he is optimistic because the last few weeks have been relatively quiet given the holiday rush, and cited the recent “Black Friday” when just one citation was issued downtown all day. Parkinson added that nighttime incidents have tapered.

Furthermore, he said police officials will be meeting with the Downtown Association and the chamber after the holidays to discuss a long-term plan to deal with unruly business patrons and aggressive vagrants.

Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com.

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