“Homeland security checks” are on the rise this year in the City of San Diego, and the Islamic Center of San Diego is the most frequent location for them, according to police data analyzed by NBC 7 Investigates.
The checks are proactive measures police take as part of their community policing strategy to provide extra security to particular people and places, San Diego Police Department spokesman Scott Wahl said.
The goal, he said, is to keep an eye on “soft targets,” or places relatively unprotected and vulnerable.
NBC 7 Investigates analyzed SDPD calls for service data from 2015 to the present. (The data are publicly available on the City of San Diego’s open data portal.) The data show police have performed more homeland security checks in the first eight months of 2017 (640 checks) than they did in all of 2015 (434 checks) and 2016 (517 checks).
This year, according to the data, police performed 123 homeland security checks at the 7000 Eckstrom Ave block. It’s home to the Islamic Center of San Diego, Islamic School of San Diego and Masjid Abu Bakr mosque. The data show police often perform checks there multiple times per day and in the middle of the night.
“The overall intent is to put police presence at a particular location to make sure that, one, we are making people feel safe, and two, acting as a deterrent to anyone who would wish to harm or commit a crime at that location,” Wahl said. “It’s more on the customer service side than anything else.”
Taha Hassane, director of the Islamic Center, said for the past few years the Islamic Center has had an arrangement with the SDPD to patrol its area more often. Hassane, who sits on an advisory board to the SDPD Chief Shelley Zimmerman, said the Islamic Center asks police to park their cars at or near the religious center while they fill out paperwork from other incidents in order to provide a visible presence.
“This will give two messages: a message to our community members that our place is safe and protected, and a message to whoever thinks to attack or vandalize or do anything wrong that they have to think twice about doing that,” Hassane said.
According to the data, the second most checked location in 2017, after the Islamic Center, is the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center located in La Jolla. The data show police completed 95 homeland security checks there.
The third most checked location, with 30 checks this year according to the data, is the Muslim Community Center of Greater San Diego located on Via Fiesta.
NBC 7 Investigates contacted both the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center and Muslim Community Center of Greater San Diego, but representatives with both organizations declined to comment.
According to Hassane, Muslim community members are happy to have the extra SDPD presence. He said it gives them a sense of safety and protection.
Hassane said President Donald Trump’s presidency and the current political climate have contributed to increased harassment of Muslim community members in public places. In San Diego, Hassane said people frequently drive by the Center shouting insults and bad words.
“We believe that the rhetoric we have experienced during the election campaign and after the inauguration gave kind of permission, or the green light, to people to show their hatred to their Muslim neighbors,” Hassane said.
FBI statistics show 84 hate crimes were reported in San Diego in 2016, up from 73 in 2015. 10 percent of the 2016 hate crimes were categorized as anti-Islamic.
Wahl said he disagrees that there has been an increase in homeland security checks at any particular location this year. He said the data don't paint a full picture of where police are checking most often because officers don’t always create a record of homeland security checks.
As a result, the actual number of checks is likely greater than the data show.
Wahl said police perform homeland security checks at religious centers, infrastructure locations, ballgames and people’s homes. He recalled being sent to do checks at a water treatment facility in San Diego in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
“We’re always monitoring things from a global perspective,” Wahl said. “Depending on what’s happening out there would help drive the need for homeland security checks. It just depends on what’s happening in the world today.”