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A Holiday From Murder

April 14, 2002

Luck plays an obvious role in streaks. The baseball takes a funny bounce, evades a shortstop's outstretched glove and rolls safely into the outfield. So, yes, luck is evident in Huntington Beach, a city that had been averaging more than five murders annually during the past decade.

The last murder entry on the police blotter is dated Nov. 27, 1999, as The Times recently reported. There's no telling when that serendipitous streak might end. Surf City certainly has continued to have its share of violent incidents, but none of the victims has died.

Fortune isn't the main force responsible for Huntington Beach's welcome break in the deadly action. Local politicians rightfully credit improved policing, including policies that seem to be reducing gang violence, which has ignited some of the city's deadly confrontations. Law enforcement is quick to shift the spotlight onto paramedics and the UCI Medical Center's Level One trauma center.

Medical advances and sheer determination have kept many victims at death's door from crossing over. Trauma center surgeons, nurses and technicians are alerted by incoming paramedics. Hospital teams can't help every victim rolled into the unit on a gurney, but they are better equipped to stabilize victims and quickly move them into surgery. "They work some miracles," a veteran police officer said.

One deadly incident last year shattered Huntington Beach's grace period. Police shot and killed an 18-year-old man who was holding a toy gun. Prosecutors ruled the shooting to be justified. Apart from that tragedy, the relative calm echoes an era in which Huntington Beach was a small, quiet town. Police logs show several lengthy murder-free periods during the 1940s, '50s and early '60s.

Whether it's a newfound sense of civility, simple luck or, most likely, the combined efforts of safety and medical personnel, the absence of murders helped to push Huntington Beach's violent crime rate down by 0.3% during 2001. The city's good fortune is all the more apparent because the statewide murder rate rose 9.2% during 2001. What's more, crime rates in Orange County's major cities rose at higher rates than in the rest of the state.

Law enforcement officials can't explain why the murder rate in one jurisdiction drops noticeably while rising elsewhere. The unexpected calm also drives a more practical benefit: In addition to catching up on other crimes, the city's detectives have more time to research leads into 20 unsolved murders. But the advances in community policing and emergency response at least encourage the notion that the city is doing some things right. And, if luck plays a supporting role, so be it.

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