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Americas

Stockton seeks solution to survive

The US financial crisis took its toll on the Californian city of Stockton, leaving it bankrupt and thousands dependent on food stamps. If that weren't enough, fewer police are dealing with a rising murder rate.

As dusk settles, Diana Foster and her friend make their way home to avoid being out on Stockton's streets after dark. Statistically, the Californian city now belongs to the 10 most dangerous cities in the US and the murder rate has climbed through the roof - last year alone 71 people were killed. Only recently a pensioner was shot dead in Victory Park, in the middle of an affluent neighborhood.

"It's worse than ever. I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel right now. It's sad to say that I feel safer with my son in Afghanistan than here in his own home because people are just getting killed and robbed for apparently no reason," says Foster.

Police officer Joseph Silva knows all about the concerns of Stockton's citizens, reflected by the growing pile of paperwork on his desk. He knows that Stockton is gripped by fear and that a higher police presence on the streets would help to alleviate that fear. But he also realizes that things won't change, the city is essentially bankrupt and can't afford to splash out on safety measures.

"Once the budget situation started hitting back in 2008, we started losing police officers. The reason why they have left is because of certain cuts that have been made to our salary. Some of our senior officers have been cut 30 percent of the pay and benefits within a year and a half. So, I mean, that's just a real fast cut that a lot of people just financially couldn't take. So they had to go look elsewhere for their family," he says.

Stockton Police Cars: Bild: Stockton, Kalifornien, USA, Anne Allmeling/DW

The police force has been gutted by the crisis

Down and out

In a nutshell, the city's gravest problems are not enough police officers and a lack of security, however the concerns don't stop there. Stockton, almost singlehandedly, exposes the extent of America's financial and debt crisis. To be sure insolvencies, growing unemployment, rising poverty, property foreclosures featured in countless towns and cities across the country, but the once-booming Stockton stands out as one of those cities hit hardest by the crisis.

"We have gone through hell in the last four years. And I'd be the first to admit it. It's not been what any average mayor wants to see in a city," says former Mayor Ann Johnston. She still appears at a loss to explain exactly what happened. A seasoned politician, she witnessed Stockton's rise during her time as city councillor when, at the turn of the millenium, thousands of family homes and new stores sprung up. That was a time when tax revenue poured in and public workers saw their salaries rise year after year.

"During those times when the money was coming in, the city fathers and mothers decided to build big projects to improve the community: an arena, a ballpark, community centers - a lot of things that make the city better," says Johnston.

But things didn't work out as planned. What was supposed to be the embodiment of a prosperous and growing society turned into a symbol of a city that lived beyond its means and failed to make provisions for bad times, a city that continued to hedge all its bets on sustained growth when the downswing was already wreaking havoc.

Stockton Arena Bild: Stockton, Kalifornien, USA, Anne Allmeling/DW

A symbol of better times

When Ann Johnston was elected mayor in 2009, the ominous signs of the US financial crisis could hardly be overlooked. The housing bubble had already burst and no other city had more foreclosures than Stockton in the months that followed. "We've been through economic downturns here in the past. They last maybe a year, 18 months, maybe two years. If you can postpone some things and kind of kick the can down the road, you can survive that. But after two years, it was pretty obvious: this is not getting any better. We don't see any hope in the future for it to get better, we have to make some really tough decisions now," says Johnston.

A city goes bankrupt

The city made cuts where it could. Firefighters, police and city workers were let go, while those that kept their jobs saw their salaries slashed and healthcare and pension benefits cut. All to no avail, forcing Ann Johnston to make a tough decision. In June 2012 she finally declared Stockton bankrupt - it's now up to a court to decide whether that really is the case.

closed Stockton Supermarket: Bild: Stockton, Kalifornien, USA, Anne Allmeling/DW

Shops have closed, people have lost their homes - the city is essentially bankrupt

"I see it as the first step on a road to recovery. It's the first step to get our finances under control," says Johnston of her move.

However that decision cost Johnston her job in November's election. Her rival Anthony Silva based his campaign on making the city safer. The 38-year-old single father grew up in Stockton and is convinced of the city's potential. He wants to recruit more police and raise taxes despite the dire financial situation. "Hopefully in the next couple of years, Stockton is going to be a good place to raise your family again. You're going to come here and there's plenty of things for the youth to do. And there's going to be youth employment, so we're going to employing them, so there's going to be less gangs. We hope and pray that there's going to be less shooting, less violence", he promises.

"People are willing to pay for protection. They are willing to do what it takes to clean the city up and make it so it's not embarrassing when we go to other states or cities or other countries we want to hear that Stockton, California, is back on her feet, and it's a great American city again," he says.

Whether Stockton's citizens are really prepared to pay more for their safety remains to be seen. For now, Officer Joseph Silva is relying on help with his investigations from the public - via Facebook.

Concrete and lasting changes, he says, are a long way off. "I'm hoping that we're just starting in five years to get out of this financial situation that we've been in for the last four years, hoping that it's going to start getting better. So that when we get to 10 years down the road, you know, there's more stability here in the city, with more jobs, and we have more police officers on the street."

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