Salvador Cervantes was about to set up a booth with other vendors at the Stockton Flea Market where he sells jewelry when two gunmen demanded his car keys. One fired a shot, Salvador said, and he dropped the keys. The men sped off in his SUV, leaving his 74-year-old father, Ignacio, bleeding to death on the ground from a gunshot wound. He was number 25.
The killing was one of 29 homicides in Stockton, California, so far this year, following a record 58 in 2011, as the city’s slide toward insolvency cut police strength. It was the fifth robbery at gunpoint in three and a half years for Salvador Cervantes.
“The first time that it happened, I wanted to just move out of here,” Cervantes, 42, said as he recounted the holdup outside his mother’s house, where a framed photo of his father in a brown cowboy hat is the center of a small shrine. “At this point, I’m used to it. It’s a fact of life.”
Stockton, with about 292,000 people, is poised to become the largest city in U.S. history to seek bankruptcy protection. Three months of talks between the city and creditors draw to a close June 25. If the talks don’t yield concessions, the city faces a $26 million deficit for the fiscal year beginning July 1 because of declining tax revenue, escalating retiree health-care costs and accounting errors.
As the city cut services and staff to stay afloat, the police force shrank 26 percent in four years. Murders more than doubled, from 24 in 2008. In the decade that ended last year, robberies were up 28 percent and burglaries rose 44 percent.
“As we’ve had a reduction of officers in our community and couldn’t be as proactive as before, we’ve noticed violent crime, such as homicides, has gone up,” said Joe Silva, a police spokesman.
Life in Stockton, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) east of San Francisco, means the police no longer respond to non-injury traffic accidents or send officers to keep the peace in civil disputes.
The funeral for Ignacio Cervantes was arranged by Cano Funeral Home. Services have increased to at least one a day this year from about four a week in 2004, said Pablo Cano, who has owned the Stockton mortuary for almost 15 years.
“We’re seeing a lot more crime, definitely,” Cano, 70, said in an interview. “The shortage in the police is leaving everything wide open to where people feel they can get away with anything.”
Cano has seven employees and said he’s looking to hire more to keep up with the funerals.
“It’s very hard on my staff because they try to get a few hours of sleep,” Cano said. “Right now, it’s hard to take a break.”
Stockton’s unemployment rate was 15.4 percent in April, almost twice the national average of 8.1 percent that month, according to U.S. Labor Department data. One in every 195 homes in the Stockton metropolitan area received a foreclosure filing in May, the fifth-highest rate in the country, according to RealtyTrac Inc., an Irvine, California-based provider of default data.
“People are struggling to find any kind of work,” Mayor Ann Johnston said in an interview in her City Hall office. “They’re struggling to keep their homes. And then they’re having to deal with an escalating crime rate in our community where they question their own safety.”
Meanwhile, budget cuts have forced the elimination of the narcotics, park patrol and downtown bicycling units, Police Chief Eric Jones, 40, said in an interview. Most of the homicides last year were gun- and gang-related, Jones said.
“There seems to be an emboldened criminal element out there that feel very comfortable carrying and using firearms,” said Jones, who has worked for the department since 1993 and became chief in March. “We’ve seen some very brazen activity.”
Stockton is the county seat, and the mayor says the San Joaquin County Jail is full.
“Every day, people who should be spending time in the county jail are released back into the community, waiting for a trial date or something,” Johnston said. “That adds to the criminal element on the street at any one time.”
Barbara Booth’s son, Ryan, a 20-year-old aspiring rapper who called himself Rolo Da Prince, was homicide No. 6 this year. He was shot Feb. 10 as he left a market where he’d bought orange juice and died the next day, she said.
“Stockton is no good for nobody, especially men,” said Booth, 60, in an interview. “These young folks don’t have jobs. All they know how to do is just go out there, be with each other and do whatever. It’s bad.”
Her older son, Sonny, 31, was shot in the back in 2007 and survived. The words “RIP Rolo Da Prince” are tattooed across his cheeks and an image of his brother’s face is inked on his right shoulder.
“I want to get out of here because if I don’t, he’s going to get killed next,” Barbara Booth said of Sonny.
In a city office, Ruben Sepulveda, 60, watches six screens on the wall in front of him for signs of criminal activity.
About 200 video cameras are perched across Stockton. A monitoring program, which closed for lack of funding, is being reinstated, employing 15 retired police officers. The cameras can monitor drug and criminal activity, help officers determine the response needed and record evidence, including a car fleeing the scene of a crime.
“This is a great tool,” Sepulveda, a detective who retired in 2002 after 30 years, said in an interview. “But we need the numbers.”
He referred to the number of police on the street, such as Sergeant Kathryn Nance, who is on the newly formed community response team.
Nance also serves on the board of the police union and attended talks between creditors and city officials before joining her team June 14 to check a report that a parolee had brandished a shotgun at a neighbor.
The city has asked “to cut pay to a point that it’s kind of beyond repair and beyond people’s ability to live,” said Nance, a 37-year-old mother of four. Her salary has been reduced about 23 percent since 2010, she said. That makes it hard to draw experienced officers, she said.
“The compensation package is lower than a lot of other agencies, and then you add the negative publicity of the bankruptcy and the issues that we’re having, and we don’t get people of that caliber applying anymore,” Nance said.
Early on May 4, Kari Webb said she was dropping off her husband at the truck he drove when they spotted two men siphoning fuel from the vehicle to another drawn up alongside.
Her husband, Alex Bell, 38, confronted one of the men and a fight began, she said. Bell climbed onto the passenger side of the truck, which the second man began driving off. As the truck picked up speed, Bell fell and was run over. He was No. 23.
“We had planned this year to move to Linden before my oldest son starts high school because of the homicides this year,” Webb, 36, said in an interview as her two sons watched television behind her. The silver cross she wears on a chain around her neck contains some of Bell’s ashes, she said.
“It’s scary,” said Webb, tears welling in her eyes. “We wanted to move, and Stockton took his life.”
The City Council has agreed to give City Manager Bob Deis the power to pursue a bankruptcy filing if the talks with creditors aren’t fruitful.
“We’re hopeful that it will come to a resolution,” the mayor said. “If it does not, we frankly don’t have a choice.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Alison Vekshin in San Francisco at email@example.com.