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Crime Rising After Falling for Decade : Law enforcement: Sharp increases have occurred in nearly every part of Ventura County, regardless of poverty or wealth.

COUNTY REPORT: Crime's Growing Shadow.

July 05, 1992|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

But Santa Paula crime was up 12.7% in 1991, and the city's crime rate is second in the county behind Oxnard.

Oxnard: The Prototype

It is Oxnard, the county's largest city and among its poorest, that police often mention when discussing crime trends. It's the only local city with a crime rate equal to the California average.

Just 21% of the county's residents live within its boundaries, but 31% of the county's property crime and 46% of its violent crime took place there in 1991.

And statistics show that Oxnard accounted for 43% of all new crimes countywide over the past two years, including 83% of all rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults.

Officials from Camarillo and Ventura have long pointed to crossover crooks from Oxnard as a source of some of their crime problems.

Ventura's crime rate jumped in 1991, increasing by 10% even though violent crime remained well below the county average. The trend was much the same in bucolic Ojai, the county's smallest city: little violence, but much more theft.

In Port Hueneme, which is bordered by Oxnard on three sides, crime is up 45% in two years, mostly because property offenses rose from 540 to 808.

"There are more and more people around us," Chief Robert A. Anderson said. "As the whole west end of the county grows, we're going to see more people, more targets and more criminal activity."

Ventura Police Capt. Pat Rooney said he is struck not so much by what is happening in Oxnard, but by the gradual transformation of Ventura County as a whole.

"I think the bottom line is that the cities of Ventura County are taking on the big-city composure, starting to have some of the problems that have to do with population and higher density," Rooney said.

In years past, for example, police could point to a single neighborhood as the county's chief source of narcotics. "Now it's in all the cities," Rooney said.

Oxnard officials do not minimize their problems.

New Chief Harold Hurtt, who takes office tomorrow, said the city's explosion of crime may force tough decisions on a community already struggling to close a large budget deficit.

"It may just be at a point where we're going to have to look at not providing some (other) services, just to make the city safe," Hurtt said. "It may get down to the question: Are we willing to accept this level of criminal activity and what does in mean for the long term?"

To respond effectively, however, requires an understanding of just what is going wrong in the first place.

And neither newly appointed Hurtt nor former Chief Robert P. Owens say they know precisely what has caused the biggest increase in crime in the city's history.

Although still learning about Oxnard, Hurtt said his inclination is to insert community-based policing--"the only hope for policing in this country"--into Oxnard's toughest neighborhoods.

Permanent police storefronts could help bring order to the city's most lawless neighborhoods, though staffing them would pull officers out of their black-and-whites, he said.

Hurtt said he intends to move quickly to send a message to Los Angeles gang members who might think crime is easier in Oxnard. He hopes to gradually phase out Sunday night cruising on Saviers Boulevard, which he says is a problem because of gang confrontations.

And Hurtt, the former assistant police chief in Phoenix, said he is "looking to provide avenues for kids to get out of gangs--an alternative." Schools and recreation and social services must be part of the answer, he said.

Owens said he sees the symptoms of escalating crime--drugs, guns and gang members--more than ever before. But he is not sure what caused the change or what more should be done about it.

In response to street drug sales, the department recently mounted a seven-officer bicycle patrol. A new computer system allows officers to quickly retrieve information on gang members, their friends and family and the cars they tend to drive.

Oxnard police continue to use two proven strategies--the aggressive prosecution of young repeat criminals and the targeting of high crime for extra enforcement.

But Owens said he believes that budget problems have undercut Oxnard and Ventura County's vaunted ability to be tough on criminals.

To avoid costly booking fees imposed by the county, Oxnard and other cities now ticket and release thousands of misdemeanor suspects yearly who would otherwise have gone to jail. "That has made the fact that somebody is arrested a less significant event," Owens said.

Likewise, the district attorney's office no longer has enough lawyers to prosecute thousands of minor crimes it once aggressively pursued, he said.

Since the late 1980s, Owens said, Oxnard police have been seeing a tough new breed of hardened youth who rob and steal with impunity.

"What causes that, I haven't a clue," he said. "There was evidence of the same trend in the late 1970s, but the gangbangers grew out of it. Now we have another generation."

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