The chief's views on the gang situation were echoed in recent weeks by Oxnard patrol officers, who said they agree that the gang problem has been exaggerated.
They described Oxnard youths involved in gangs as "wanna-bes" or "fragmented groups of kids" or "little punks" or "misguided youth"--not a major problem.
"There are very few, very few gangs," Officer Dennis McMasters said during a recent patrol. "If we had hard-core gang members here, you'd have some homicides."
Even as McMasters minimized gang activity, he was told several times about gang activity by Oxnard citizens and even a fellow officer.
McMasters responded at one point to a call from workers at a warehouse who dubbed the vandals who had broken into their facility and left only a bat behind as "members of that gang, the Lemonwood Chiques."
About an hour later, as McMasters cruised the south end of Oxnard, a motorist honked insistently at him to stop. As McMasters slowed and rolled down his window, the middle-aged driver pointed toward Oxnard Boulevard.
"'Just over the overpass, there's a hell of a gang fight," he said.
"How does he know it was a gang?" McMasters grumbled before heading to the overpass for a look that revealed no activity.
A few minutes later, McMasters was told over the radio by another officer that a similar confrontation had occurred earlier that afternoon.
And toward the end of his shift, when McMasters stopped for a quick chat with a former partner, the officer said:
"Did you hear about the ICC's big gang fight in Port Hueneme tomorrow?"
According to the Ventura County district attorney's office, the two largest gangs in Oxnard are the Oxnard Chiques and the Colonia Chiques.
Also in the Colonia are the Loma Flats, who claim to be associated with the Los Angeles Bloods.
At the south end of town are the Rolling Sixties Gangster Crips and the Inner City Crips, a Latino gang.
Other gangs in the city, according to county officials, are the Lemonwood Chiques, the Kanto Gang Boys, the Santanas and a predominantly white skinhead gang.
While acknowledging that the gangs exist, Owens maintained this week that they are a relatively insignificant factor in Oxnard crime.
Owens called the Colonia Chiques "an amorphous mess." He said the city's total gang population is about 100.
In downplaying gang activity in Oxnard, Owens has the support of some Oxnard City Council members.
Councilwoman Ann Johs said she saw gang activity during a recent ride-along with police. But she said the gangs should not be glamorized.
"They're there," said Johs, a member of the public safety policy commission of the California League of Cities. "There was one section of town where I could physically see 12 gang members up to no good."
But the tactic the city uses, she said, is to not admit that there are gangs. In that way, she said, gangs do not get publicity.
"If they don't get any publicity, they're not as active," Johs said. "Our people know where they are and what they're doing and so far they're not out of hand."
The Oxnard policy of trying to ignore gangs, while similar to the approach of many cities throughout the state, was questioned by several leading law enforcement experts, who termed the approach outdated and potentially dangerous.
Criminal justice expert G. Albert Howenstein told The Times that any city policy of denying that gangs exist and are a problem "allows gangs to grow and take control of the neighborhood."
"It's important to get them before 'wanna-bes' become 'are-bes,' " said Howenstein, the director of the state office of criminal justice planning. "Whether they're 'wanna-bes' or have signed-up membership cards, the fact that they're 'wanna-bes' should be frightening enough."
Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, who addressed the issue of under-reporting of gang activity at an anti-gang conference, said last week that the downplaying of gang activity often results from pressure by politicians who do not want their cities to be viewed as having such problems.
"I believe the result of political influences is to downplay the negatives in a community, particularly as they concern gangs," Block said in an interview with The Times. "Gang violence in a community can impact house prices, commerce and tourism."
Ventura County Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen McLaughlin, who serves as a department consultant on gang-related cases, called Oxnard's gang policies appropriate, but would not comment further.
However, he praised the public approach taken by the city of Ventura in dealing with gang problems as "proactive and progressive."
The Ventura Police Department and City Council held news conferences and issued press releases to publicize the city's gang problem last March, after a drive-by shooting in front of Ventura High School stunned the community.
The Police Department set up a six-officer suppression team that for the last six months has aggressively enforced ordinances against youths believed to be in gangs--from breaking a 10 p.m. curfew to drinking in public.