Local crime rates have been falling for almost a decade and people say they generally feel safe, but a new Los Angeles Times poll shows that more Orange County residents today than two years ago rank crime as the most important problem facing the county.
The survey found that a 56% majority now believe that crime, gangs, drugs, graffiti or inadequate police service are paramount issues for the county, and residents want more police, as well as tougher laws, to make the streets safer.
Reflecting a general pattern detected across the state and nation, crime has surged as an issue in Orange County since 1992, despite a relatively low level of crime compared to other metropolitan areas of California.
Crime was mentioned as the public's biggest worry more often in this year's poll than in two previous Orange County surveys by The Times in April, 1992, and August, 1993.
Crime topped the list of concerns even though the poll found that 83% of county residents generally feel secure in their communities, and 92% feel safe in their own homes.
"It doesn't surprise me, based on what is happening: the growth of gangs, the growth in violent crime and the trends across the rest of the country," said Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters, president of the Orange County Chiefs and Sheriff's Assn. "Every police chief can tell you they are hearing about the same things in their communities."
The Times Poll, under the supervision of John Brennan, interviewed 1,188 Orange County adults by telephone on Aug. 6 and 7. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For certain subgroups, the margin of error might be somewhat higher.
In this year's survey, residents mentioned crime far more than two other well-publicized issues: the economy and illegal immigration. Only 10% picked an economic issue as a major concern, while 4% put immigration at the top of the list.
"The amount of crime in my neighborhood is definitely increasing," said Mark Gleason, 37, a computer software salesman from Santa Ana who participated in The Times poll. "There are more break-ins, more vandalism and more graffiti. The most disturbing thing is the unprecedented rise in gang activity. Juvenile crime is a real growth area here."
The poll shows that concern about crime appears to be broad-based, but it tends to be higher in north Orange County and in neighborhoods where minorities predominate. Yet, even in mostly white communities, crime tops the list of concerns as it does among upper-income families.
Latinos and those living in nonwhite neighborhoods are particularly inclined to cite gangs as an issue, while lower-income households specifically cite gangs and drugs.
Survey findings about the public's growing concern about crime contrasted against the overwhelming sense of safety suggest that local opinion follows a pattern also seen nationally: Concern about crime develops not so much from personal experience as from a media-driven sense that crime is on the rise virtually everywhere.
"I don't have any doubt the media plays a role. The media highlight and play up criminal and violent activities," said Gerald C. Davison, interim dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. "People doing good--what you'd call human interest--occupies second place."
To some extent, the sensational murders, gang shootings and freeway chases served up to the viewing and reading public give the community a distorted picture of how widespread crime is, Davison said.
The FBI Crime Index, an indicator of criminal activity both locally and nationally, actually shows that reported crimes per 100,000 residents, has been dropping in Orange County since 1986, when the index peaked at 6,059. The latest FBI index is around 5,600.
The FBI calculates the index from reported homicides, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, auto thefts, larcenies and arsons--crimes that members of the public are most likely to report to the police.
The disturbing thing is that over the last decade, homicides in the county have more than doubled, many of them blamed on burgeoning gang activity. Overall, the violent crime rate has increased more than 60% over the same period. A large portion of that upswing, however, is due to a change in state law in 1986 requiring that domestic assaults, which had not been viewed as felonies before that time, be added to the aggravated assault category of the FBI index.
Crime rates also vary widely across Orange County. Irvine has had the lowest crime rate locally, according to the FBI Crime Index, while rates in Fullerton, Santa Ana and Garden Grove have been among the highest. Of the five most populous counties in the state, Orange County's crime rate is the lowest, except for Santa Clara County's.