Eric Lincoln, an officer at the San Luis Obispo Police Department (SLOPD), is one of the town’s 44,948 residents who experience an influx of college students into the population at the beginning of each school year.
Many of the people who permanently live and work in San Luis Obispo welcome the spike in population and change in atmosphere, and the town is nevertheless ready for the onslaught of students and all that comes with them, Lincoln said.
“Substantially things change (during the summer),” he said. “You’re going to find far less people than when school is back in session — huge differences. So just by the sheer numbers, you’re going to get more crime.”
Preliminary registration estimates of 19,000 Cal Poly and 11,200 Cuesta students could increase the city’s population by a third, San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce director of marketing Lindsey Miller said. For the past 10 years the number of residents has been consistently around 45,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. If one were to estimate that 30,200 college students are moving into San Luis Obispo from out of town, the actual population would be more than 60,000, she said.
Violent crimes are not directly related to this rise in student numbers and can occur at any time of year, Lincoln said. These include homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. Lesser crimes, especially theft and alcohol-related offenses do, however, increase in frequency upon students’ return.
Three sexual assault cases involving students took place during the spring of 2011. Many of which involve people who are acquainted, Lincoln said.
“Most of our sexual assaults, as is true in any society, are people who know people,” Lincoln said. “They’re not the random person walking down the street gets clubbed over the head and drug into a back alley. That does happen here, and it happens more than you think, but most of our assaults are people who know each other.”
In 2009, the most recent records available, the city of San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly reported 142 violent crimes: 31 rapes, 39 robberies, 72 aggravated assaults and no homicides. Burglaries, motor vehicle thefts and larceny-thefts of more than $400 were reported 695 times in 2009. Larceny-theft cases of less than $400 totaled 1,012.
“It’s a safe place to live, generally, for the class one felonies — rape, robbery, murder,” Lincoln said. “But we have a tremendous amount of theft in this city.”
Theft on Lincoln’s downtown beat deals mainly with stolen retail merchandise or private and city-owned property.
The current trend to be aware of is car window smashing, Lincoln said. Crowded parking lots, such as at The Graduate and several downtown parking structures, end up with multiple thefts in a night because people leave valuable items in plain sight. Computers, iPods, GPS devices and purses are among the most frequently stolen items.
Other examples of theft come in the form of inventory shrinkage for businesses. This can most commonly be seen downtown when consumers have had a few drinks, but it also includes employee theft, shoplifting, vendor fraud and inventory miscalculations.
Downtown clothing store Express’ sales lead Megan Ennis said the store cannot share a statistical breakdown, but that shrinkage is a much bigger issue at its other locations.
“We actually just got our annual shrink results, and they were the lowest we’ve had in a long time, probably the lowest in the district,” Ennis said. “So we’re pretty happy about that.”
San Luis Obispo is one of the safest cities in California for large business chains to open a store. People here just do not steal as often, Ennis said.
However, when retail stores close and bars start to welcome customers, the two economies of the downtown area — night and day — start to show differences, Miller said. The chamber of commerce downtown offices have experienced this first hand, she said.
“We get thrown up on and peed on here (at the Chamber of Commerce) because we’re across the street from some very popular bars,” Miller said. “But, I think that would happen in any town.”
Bars in particular deal with a lot of broken or stolen mugs, furniture and other items. However, some say it’s not a big deal, such as Bull’s Tavern bartender Rich Reynolds.
“That’s the cost of doing business,” Reynolds said. “We break more stuff than anyone else. I don’t notice a lot of patrons dropping stuff.”
Many bar owners and employees have even embraced all that comes with the college student clientele.
“A bar is like a big-kid day care, it comes with the business,” Martston’s Bar and Grill manager Josh Cantrell said. “People get drunk and things happen, you know? It’s not their fault.”
SLOPD and other local organizations, such as the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce and the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association, understand the town thrives on college students in more ways than one. These groups work together to limit the town’s two most common crimes — theft and alcohol-related offenses — in a way that benefits the town as a whole.
A series of meetings took place during the past several months to address the most common offenses. The public safety assessment of the downtown area was conducted based on geographic location.
Community members and business owners were divided into four groups that worked together to identify the best solutions. Community, hospitality, safety and development were the locally designated groups, but help was enlisted from an external research company as well.
“They had a group that they brought in, a consultant, Responsible Hospitality Institute,” Miller said. “They came and did a study to talk to all the groups and find out what we think would make nightlife safer, how it could be more of a responsible nightlife atmosphere, changes that they could put into place, new programs (and) things like that.”
These meetings have not yielded any final results to this point, but several possible solutions are being reviewed.
“A couple of the things that seemed to come out from all of the groups that would address a number of problems at nighttime are lack of public transportation and lack of lighting,” Brent Vanderhoof, an administrative assistant for the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association said.
SLO Safe Ride is a privately-owned company which provides sober drivers, but it only operates Thursday to Saturday night. A city-owned company which provides the same services would not only cut down drunk driving, but also limit the number of intoxicated people walking the streets, Vanderhoof said.
Another solution that is only a matter of time before taking effect is the addition of lighting in dimly lit downtown areas. This can be handled cost efficiently by adding lights to enhance the downtown atmosphere, rather than adding new street lamps, Vanderhoof said. This would also limit the negative feedback from residents of the downtown area who are opposed to more lights shining in their homes.
The town and its residents have grown to accept the fact that college students annually raise the population, but crime rates specifically dealing with these students will continue to be analyzed and effectively limited, Miller said.
It is an issue that will not go away anytime soon, Lincoln said. The most important thing to all the organizations that have worked together on preventing crime in San Luis Obispo is the safety of its residents, he said.
“They’re just simply the ones who have the schedules where they can stay up,” Lincoln said. “They have the desire to go out. They don’t have kids they have to stay home with. They don’t have a wife or husband saying, ‘Where are you going?’”