When Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama first came into the job in 2021, violent crime was at its worst. Balderrama had to dedicate police resources to investigating murders and assaults.
“I’m not going to focus on petty larcenies when people are being shot and killed,” Balderrama said in an interview with GV Wire on Monday.
But data show murders and assaults largely curbed in the city, Balderrama said. And, with record staffing and a new grant to address organized retail theft, the police chief can ratchet up the department’s focus on the segment of crime that has sharply risen — larcenies and robberies.
“We have had a lot of success in the last two years in lowering violent crime and adding police officers to the force,” Balderrama said. “But now we can really refocus on some of those other things that really affect the business community such as retail theft.”
Larcenies Up 34% in Fresno, Robberies up 19%
On Monday afternoon, the Blackstone Merchants Association met with Fresno leaders at Fresno First Baptist Church.
Nearly 100 business owners along Blackstone Avenue and some residents from the area told a panel of leaders about the issues facing Fresno’s core area.
On the panel: Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, Fresno councilmembers Tyler Maxwell, Annalisa Perea, and Nelson Esparza; Balderrama, Deputy Chief Michael Landon, Police Capt. Jennifer Horsford, City Attorney Andrew Janz, and Fresno Economic Development Director Lance Lippincott.
A repeated theme from business owners was vandalism and crime.
Tony Ochinero owns the shopping center at Blackstone and Ashlan avenues, where the Walmart is located.
“We’re very popular right now, more popular than we want to be,” Ochinero said.
At a meeting with tenants, businesses discussed the problems they had been facing at the center.
Up to Sept. 21, Walmart’s retail losses at that store were $1.8 million for the year, Ochinero said. In mid-summer, camping supplies took a major loss. The store lost $200,000 in health and beauty supplies, largely makeup and women’s clothes, Ochinero said.
The contract to have uniformed, off-duty police officers at the Walmart had been very successful, Ochinero said. But in a two-week lapse of the contract, criminals became noticeably “emboldened.”
In one instance, a group rode out on eight bicycles stolen from the store.
“They get really emboldened, we’ve had more assaults, more conflicts with our security,” Ochinero said.
City-wide, reported larcenies in 2022 rose 34.4% year-over-year, according to the Fresno Police Department’s annual report. Robberies rose 18.8%.
Drop in Murder Rates Means Resources Freed to Address Property Crime
When Balderrama came into position, violent crime was spiking in the city.
The number of homicides increased 64% in 2020, from 45 to 74, according to the police department’s annual report. In 2021, the year Balderrama came in, that number remained the same. Shootings rose 96% in 2020 from 2019, from 374 to 732. The police department recorded 653 shootings in 2021.
Balderrama said during 2020 and 2021, the city had 150 vacancies in the police department and 100 officers who couldn’t come to work because of COVID. “We were literally running the city with about 550, 600 cops, which is not nearly enough,” Balderrama said.
As the department hired more officers, homicides dropped the next year to 60. Shootings dropped to 449.
Balderrama attributed intelligence efforts and increased police hiring for the drop in those crimes. In 2022, Fresno Police hired 117 police officers, bringing the number of officers to 901. A $24 million grant to address retail theft will add another 25 officers. By the end of 2024, Balderrama expects to have 950 officers.
“I believe by the end of next year, we’ll be somewhere around close to 950, and that’s a little bit more equitable to a city of our size. More cops do make a difference,” Balderrama said.
Retail Theft Unit Can Punish Organized Theft Above Prop 47 Limitations
When voters approved Proposition 47 in 2014, it turned shoplifting crimes below $950 into a misdemeanor. Before, prosecutors could penalize shoplifting as burglary, with some sentences as high as six years in prison.
Many bemoaned Prop. 47’s lax punishment as a reason for increased theft.
“We know if there’s no consequence to crime, then people are going to commit the crime,” Balderrama said.
But with police officers dedicated to tracking groups of criminals over multiple crimes, it becomes much easier to exceed that $950 threshold.
Oftentimes, the same group of people will steal goods and then turn them over to other groups to sell them. Balderrama called it “organized crime.”
Additionally, Balderrama said each police district is now run like its own department. The five geographic districts have their own investigations units, criminal analysts, and about 120 officers of their own.
“All of these things have been added on in the past year-and-a-half, and that gives us the capability to be more responsive,” Balderrama said.