Nine of the nation's 10 safest large cities are in California, and two affluent Ventura County suburbs are the most crime-free of all U.S. communities with at least 100,000 residents, new FBI and census figures show.
Simi Valley nudged rival Thousand Oaks for the top spot; Santa Clarita and Glendale placed third and ninth, respectively.
Simi Valley or Thousand Oaks has ranked first among the nation's large cities for 10 of the last 13 years. Amherst Town, a college community in suburban Buffalo, N.Y., was first the other three years.
Six Orange County cities ranked in the nation's top 25, with Irvine seventh and Huntington Beach eighth. If 93,000-resident Mission Viejo had been a bit larger, it would have placed second, just behind Simi Valley.
"It is certainly a source of pride," Simi Valley Mayor Pro Tem Barbra Williamson said. "We've come to enjoy having this title. And we work hard to keep it. We spend a lot of money on the Police Department, and we get our residents involved as volunteers."
Most of the top-rated cities are white-collar commuter havens with high employment.
"When you have a community where there's a very high employment rate, and most people commute to work, there are not that many people around to commit much crime," said Barry Glassner, a USC sociology professor and author of "The Culture of Fear."
The safe-city rankings are based on a ratio of city population to crime reported in seven categories--murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft and auto theft.
Planner William Fulton, author of books on California growth, said many of the suburban cities benefit from education and affluence--and that is by design.
"What is the median income of the safe towns?" Fulton said. "It's high. If you zone out poor people then you're going to have a safer city."
Nationwide, crime remained stable last year after spiraling downward for a decade, the FBI reported. Violent offenses were up 0.1% and property crime was nearly unchanged.
In California, crime has also plateaued, but only after the rate bottomed at the lowest level in three decades. The state reported a crime rate of just 38 crimes per 1,000 residents in 1999, compared with a national average of nearly 43.
White-Collar Cities Lead Way
Leading the way are the white-collar communities that ring the state's largest cities: Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks and Santa Clarita on the fringe of Los Angeles, and Sunnyvale and Daly City in the Bay Area. They had rates between 15 and 21 crimes per 1,000 residents.
Glendale's rate was just over 25 crimes per 1,000 residents.
The state's largest cities have also experienced sharp drops in crime over the last decade. FBI data show that San Jose, San Diego, Anaheim, Long Beach and Santa Ana have remarkably low crime rates compared with other cities their size.
San Jose, the nation's 11th-largest city, ranked 10th-best on the safe-cities list with a rate of 25.49 per 1,000 residents. San Diego's rate was 37.89 per 1,000. Even Los Angeles' rate was a fraction of a decade ago--just 48.86 per 1,000.
Those rates are far lower than in the nation's other biggest cities, except for the 36 per 1,000 rate in New York City.
By comparison, St. Louis, Mo., had 145 crimes per 1,000--the highest in the U.S.
In California, Fresno had the highest rate, 76.9 crimes per 1,000, followed by Berkeley, Stockton, Sacramento, San Bernardino and Oakland.
But most crime news is good these days. And not by accident.
"Anyone who suggests that there's been some magic bullet that has brought these crime rates down is missing the mark," USC's Glassner said. "The factors involved range from increases in the size of police forces to an improvement in the economy. As a matter of demographics, there are fewer young males. And the U.S. has a high incarceration rate."
In Los Angeles County's safest large city, Santa Clarita officials credit community involvement and a range of anti-crime programs.
City councils have supported services such as an anti-gang task force, teen court, a human relations forum, neighborhood sheriff's teams and bicycle patrols. Funds also support youth after-school programs, recreation and sports activities.
"This is a community that we feel is safe, we want to keep it that way," Councilman Cameron Smyth said. "It is clearly a communitywide effort between the city, local law enforcement and the residents of Santa Clarita."
Irvine, Huntington Beach Make Top 10
In low-crime Orange County, all eight large cities were among the 35 safest in the nation. Ranked in the top 10, Irvine saw serious crime drop by 5% and Huntington Beach had a 7% decline last year.
Like others on the list, the two cities are relatively sparsely populated and have enjoyed economic good times.
"These are all suburban communities, and they don't have much industrialization," said Paul Jesilow, an associate professor at UC Irvine's Department of Criminology, Law and Society. "If you look at the 10 most crime-ridden, you'll probably see that none of them are suburbs."