Oxnard Police Officer Dennis McMasters pointed the flashlight's high beam into the suspect's face and scrutinized the man's pupils--tiny black dots swimming in large, brown eyes.
"You've been using, haven't you?" McMasters said. "You're afraid I'm going to arrest you, aren't you?"
McMasters examined the 35-year-old's arms, beginning at the wrist and following the blue-green vein to the inside of the elbow, where it bulged uncomfortably in a knot.
He checked the backs of both hands and arms, ignoring the tattoo of the woman with flowing hair in his search for needle marks.
The man chattered nervously about the drug rehabilitation program he had completed and insisted he was clean before McMasters let him go toward the orange and blue room doors that dismally offset the beige pallor of the nearby motel.
"He's on heroin," McMasters said. "He's been like that forever."
It was the middle of a typical police swing shift in Oxnard--where everyone from the police chief to the patrol officer cites drugs as the city's biggest crime problem.
"It's not hard to go out and find people under the influence of heroin," said McMasters, who was patrolling city neighborhoods south of Woolley Road and east of Saviers Road during a recent 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift.
Oxnard--with its memories of bar shoot-outs, riots against police and barrio warfare, according to Owens--long ago assumed the mantle of the crime capital of Ventura County.
The FBI crime statistics for 1988 showed Oxnard's crime rate to be twice the county average, with 7,816 crimes per 100,000 citizens, double the rate of 3,875.6 for the county and higher than the national average of 5,664.2.
Despite the growing drug problem and the FBI statistics, Police Chief Robert Owens said, the city's reputation for crime is unwarranted.
"It's the parochialism of people in Ventura and Camarillo that they enjoy looking down their noses at Oxnard," Owens said.
People who think Oxnard is violent are carrying old perceptions from the days when the Colonia, the largest barrio in Ventura County, was dangerous, Owens said.
"It's very hard to get people to forget legends," Owens said. "There was a time when the Colonia used to strike fear into people, when you couldn't walk down the street without getting beaten up or stabbed or shot or robbed at least."
Owens said crime has been on a downward trend since 1978. However, he said, that trend has reversed itself--with crime rising by 17% since city budget problems forced cuts in field personnel.
The city restored about $115,000 to the department budget this fall, but Owens is still short on officers.
"I'm not saying the cuts resulted directly in increased crime, but you can't ignore them," he said.
The time it takes police cars to respond to a call has risen from 4.57 minutes during the 1987-88 fiscal year to 5.47 minutes since the budget cuts.
"It doesn't augur well for public safety," Owens said.
Owens' description of the level of crime in Oxnard was supported by two relatively tranquil ride-alongs with police in recent weeks.
The officers fielded a variety of calls--checking dead bodies for foul play, calming parents involved in custody disputes and quieting noisy parties.
When not answering calls, McMasters cruised his beat--circling neighborhood trouble spots, heading down back alleys and gracefully maneuvering his car around wooden barriers to drive through deserted parks.
McMasters suspiciously watched everything from two boys walking down a sidewalk to a bright blue Pontiac that he thought waited too long at a stop sign.
Much of the city's crime is found along the central corridor of Saviers Road and Oxnard Boulevard. But there are pockets of crime in neighborhoods that typify suburbia and areas of palatial homes.
More and more crime is found in the Southwinds area in south Oxnard. In the Colonia, patrol cars still carry two officers. And a location described by police as the most infamous Oxnard crime spot--the condemned Lemon Tree Hotel--stands on Meta Street just a few blocks from downtown.
And everywhere, the officers contend with the city's drug problem.
In 1984, officers made 947 drug-related arrests. In 1989, they made 2,972 such arrests.
Owens is applying to the U.S. Department of Justice for a $391,000 grant to create a "Street Sales Enforcement Team," four officers who would deal specifically with narcotics crimes and field calls from a drug hot line.
He attributes the Oxnard drug problem in part to demographics, postulating that Oxnard may have a greater number of the 20- to-30-year-olds who use drugs than other county cities.
Years ago, Oxnard was the place to come for heroin. Its airport and harbor provided good access for bringing it into the city, police say.
In turn, heroin was the drug of choice for most Oxnard users.
Now officers say that popularity has been conferred on crack cocaine.
"You can find kids all the time smoking that crack," McMasters said. "It's unbelievable. It really is."