Gun threats against San Diego police officers are at a five-year high

San Diego police quietly trail protesters at a distance on the streets of Saturday's march.
San Diego police trail protesters in June 2020 during a march through downtown. (Gary Robbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Gunfire erupted within 20 seconds of San Diego Police Officer Darwin Anderson's arrival at the Encanto home.

A neighbor had called 911. A woman and her dog were lying in a driveway, shot. As Anderson pulled up, a man approached, distraught.

"I see my mother dead right there!" he shouted, pointing to a home on Iona Drive .

The officer made his way toward the 74-year-old woman. As he began to kneel next to her, a gunshot rang out. Anderson jumped up. Another shot.

"Oh my god, they're shooting at the police officer," the 911 caller told a dispatcher.

The Aug. 28 incident was the fourth time last month and the eighth time this year that someone used a gun to threaten or shoot at a San Diego police officer. In June, an officer was shot in the arm while chasing a man who ran from a stolen vehicle. Less than a month later, a gunman fatally shot a 4-year-old police dog named Sir.

Officers have faced more gun threats in 2023 than the previous two years combined, according to data maintained by the department's homicide unit. The figures include incidents when people allegedly threaten officers with guns, point guns at officers or shoot at officers. This year's total was the highest seen over five years.

"It's horrifying," San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said. "It just seems like I'm getting more and more calls. 'Chief, we had an officer-involved shooting. We have officers being fired upon. A canine was just killed.' It's just all too common."

It's a phenomenon that's touched other departments as well. In June, a man wanted in his girlfriend's murder opened fire on Riverside County sheriff's deputies and Oceanside police officers at the tail end of a pursuit, police said. Less than a month later, a man wanted on a felony warrant tried to fire a gun at a La Mesa police officer, but the weapon malfunctioned.

Like other forms of crime, deciphering why violence against officers rises or falls is nuanced. Homicide investigators noted that ghost guns, drug use and mental health struggles were regularly involved when officers faced gun threats. The District Attorney's Office found that drug use and/or mental health played a role in nearly 80% of officer-involved shootings from 1993 to 2017.

Criminologists who study violence against police noted that high-profile cases that fuel existing feelings of injustice — like the murder of George Floyd — can also lead to increases, as can increases in crime.

While overall crime fell across San Diego in 2022, violent crime, fueled by a double-digit jump in robberies, inched up.

Police leaders, on the other hand, placed the blame on laws they say do a poor job at keeping habitual violent offenders — who might be quicker to use a firearm — behind bars.

The department's data zero in on a specific kind of assault against police — threats involving guns — but overall assaults against San Diego officers have held fairly steady over the last two decades. In 2022, the most recent year that's available, about 275 San Diego officers reported being assaulted in some way, according to FBI data. In 2000, about 285 officers reported assaults.

And across the nation, it's generally a safer time to wear a badge, according to statistics kept by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund . In the 1970s, more than 2,300 officers were killed in the line of duty. That figure had fallen nearly 30% in the 2010s to about 1,700. Some of that decrease is likely attributed to better gear, better training and better trauma care when officers are injured, experts say.

Rise in ghost guns

During the hours-long incident in Encanto, 43-year-old  Jesse Nelson would go on to fire multiple weapons at police, including the officer who tried to rescue Nelson's dying mother, whom he'd shot. They were weapons he shouldn't have had.

In 2000, Nelson was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for second-degree murder. He got another two years for possessing drugs, a sentence he served concurrently. He was released in 2015, and his parole supervision ended in 2020 without any violations, prison officials said.

Convicted felons are barred by state law from owning or possessing firearms. But there were at least five firearms in Nelson's home, including two AR-15-style ghost guns. He was carrying one of the rifles when a police sniper fatally shot him.

Of the eight gun threats officers have faced this year, five of them involved non-serialized firearms, San Diego Police Lt. Steve Shebloski said.

Ghosts guns are do-it-yourself firearms assembled by hand from parts that often come in prepackaged kits. Because the pieces — like an unfinished gun frame — were not classified as guns, they didn't have serial numbers. And, until recently, anyone could legally buy the parts.

Last year, however, the Biden administration changed the definition of a firearm under federal law to include its pieces so they can be tracked more easily. Those parts must now be licensed and include serial numbers, and manufacturers are required to run background checks before a sale. The requirement applies, no matter how the firearm is made — whether that be from individual pieces, a kit or 3-D printers.

The new rules are being challenged in court.

San Diego, both the city and county, as well as the state of California have also implemented laws to make the firearms more traceable.

Despite these changes, ghost guns have continued to crop up at crime scenes across the nation. So far this year, the San Diego Police Department has seized about 1,600 firearms — more than 20% of which were non-serialized, officials said.

"I think the biggest issue that I've noticed, at least this last year, is the availability of ghost guns and the the amount of people that are using them," Shebloski said.

A decade ago, acquiring a gun typically meant purchasing one, the lieutenant said. For convicted felons, this posed a challenge. While criminals had the option to steal or illegally buy guns, today they have the means to produce them directly.

"They literally can go on YouTube and find how to make a ghost gun," Shebloski said.

Community leaders who work to reduce gun violence agreed that more firearms on the street puts everyone at risk — including police officers.

"I believe guns can get into the wrong hands," said Cornelius Bowser , founder of Shaphat Outreach. "We have too many guns on the streets, and too many people have access to them. That makes things dangerous for everyone."

Repeat offenders

When questioned about what he thought was driving an increase in gun threats, Nisleit pointed to the case of  Justin Teague.

Police shot the 39-year-old after he opened fire on officers responding to a report of car burglaries in a University City parking garage on Aug. 11 , department officials said.

It wasn't Teague's first police shooting. In 2003, when he was just 19, he was shot by police who said he drove a stolen Honda at them as he tried to flee. A year later he was was sentenced for driving or taking a vehicle without consent. And in 2017, he was sentenced for charges that included identity theft and buying or receiving a stolen vehicle.

When police confronted Teague last month, he was out on $50,000 bail for a July incident involving a car theft and evading police.

Nisleit argued that many of the people shooting at officers are "hardened criminals who are constantly coming in and out of the system."

"They really don't have much fear of shooting at us."

Nisleit blamed a lax criminal justice system for taking a softer stance on repeat offenders like Teague who too often wind up in altercations with officers. He added that such encounters can be particularly demoralizing for officers.

"The morale is hurt by the fact that officers do not feel that these criminals are being held accountable, that jails have become a revolving door, that the justice system is not sentencing these people to the appropriate amount of time," he said.

After George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, protesters challenged law enforcement agencies across the nation to rethink public safety. Critics argued that the current system is inherently racist, which leads to racial profiling, over-policing and use of excessive force — especially in communities of color.

Some demanded that departments be defunded, while others called for getting rid of certain police protections like qualified immunity, a legal defense which shields officers and deputies who are accused of violating constitutional rights.

Dr. Maria Haberfeld , professor and chair of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said tensions between communities and police departments can be inflamed by politicians and the media who amplify and normalize anti-police sentiments. Sentiments that could lead to an increase in crimes against police, she said.

"Each time that there is a high-profile event that is perceived as an overreach by the government, the police is on the receiving end of the public's frustration and anger," she said. "When these high-profile events confirm the feelings of injustice, like racism for example, the anger escalates."

Nisleit, whose department has been criticized for failing to aggressively tackle issues such as racial disparities in police stops, said he supports "smart, intentional police reform." But he argued some new laws place the rights of suspects over victims.

"Having to go to the loved ones of the officers who get shot, seeing the trauma, the fear on their faces — it sucks," Nisleit said. "They're no different than any other victim of violent crime. I don't think people are paying attention to that."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.