VENTURA — To ensure compliance with FBI rules, the Police Department has begun counting all crimes as citizens report them, regardless of the severity of the offense.
The Times reported in April that Ventura police had failed to report hundreds of minor property crimes each year since 1995, apparently violating FBI reporting guidelines and skewing statistics as reported city crime fell by almost half.
Police Chief Mike Tracy originally vowed to stick to the 5-year-old system, in which police waited for victims to return written crime report forms before formally counting minor thefts.
But Tracy said Tuesday that he implemented a new, more complete procedure in June after talking with state Department of Justice officials who oversee the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports program in California.
The state found the city was in technical compliance with rules but recommended a change anyway, the chief said.
"We discussed ways that other police departments do their reporting," Tracy said. "And they suggested we try to capture the information up front so we are not relying on citizens returning the form."
The Ventura department's own audits found gross underreporting with the old system.
Other local cities have always counted crimes when they are first called in to police. And state justice officials said they knew of no other police agency in the state that used the same procedure as Ventura.
FBI guidelines say agencies participating in its voluntary Uniform Crime Reports program should write a crime report promptly after receiving a citizen complaint.
Ventura City Council members said Tuesday they think the change is a good idea. A public microscope was on Ventura once its unique procedure was disclosed, Mayor Sandy Smith said.
"I don't think we did it to purposely skew the numbers," Smith said. "But the Department of Justice said this change would make it cleaner for us locally. This way it's a cleaner barometer of the crime we actually have."
Councilman Ray Di Guilio, who had said Ventura's reporting needed to be consistent with other cities, said Tracy made the right decision.
"It sounds like we've gotten some advice on how to play the game equal to others, so other agencies won't look at Ventura as if we're not playing according to the rules," he said. "Our credibility is important."
The FBI's authoritative annual crime report was started in 1930 to provide nationwide statistics used to determine trends and plot crime-fighting strategies.
Local cities often cite FBI statistics to polish their images when recruiting new businesses. Ventura County routinely ranks as the safest urban area in the West, with Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks as the nation's safest large cities.
Indeed, Ventura has touted its sharp crime drop over the last five years, as reported offenses dropped from 5,533 to 2,955. Nearly all of that reduction was in burglary and theft, the two categories in which the city changed its reporting guidelines five years ago. The rate of violent crime has remained stable.
In July 1995, Ventura police stopped writing reports or routinely dispatching officers when citizens called to complain about petty thefts or minor burglaries. Instead, the department asked victims to go to a police station to fill out a report or to complete and return a report police mailed to them.
But many people never bothered to return the reports.
A Police Department audit found that only about 50% to 60% of forms were returned in burglary cases and that 53% to 70% were returned in theft cases.
Tracy had said he wanted to keep the old system because change would cost money and he wanted to spend his budget fighting serious crimes, not counting minor ones.
But Tuesday he said the new system costs little more than the old one--because not much extra staff time is needed.
"And this system does provide a better level of service," he said. That is because many citizens consider the initial report complete and don't have to bother to fill out a supplemental form sent to their homes.
Under new reporting rules, officers, clerks and police volunteers take citizen complaints over the phone and complete a basic form every time, even in cases of minor theft.
Since early June, officials have been using a computer form with information such as case number, the victim's name, address, type of crime, location of crime, and description and value of lost property. The whole procedure takes about 10 minutes instead of about 30 seconds under the old system, said Lt. Carl Handy, a computer specialist.
"So that's a pretty significant amount of time," he said. "But it's a priority, so we do it. We just have to make the time for things that are important."
Handy said it would take two or three months to determine the effect of the new reporting system on Ventura's official crime rate.
"We've only been doing this since June 7," he said, "so there's no way to tell right now.'
Tracy said the first set of monthly figures indicates the increase will not be particularly significant.
"It hasn't been a huge increase," he said.