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California's Cities Are Among the Safest

Statistics: Eight of the 10 most crime-free in the nation are in the Golden State, six of them in the Southland. One expert says they're 'oversized suburbs,' not true cities.

June 25, 2002|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California suburbs, overgrown bedroom communities rather than traditional cities, ranked as the most crime-free large cities in the U.S. again last year, FBI and census figures show.

Eight of the nation's 10 large cities with the fewest reported major crimes are in California, six are in Southern California and most are on the urban fringe, according to a Times analysis of FBI data released Monday.

The low-crime rankings were compiled by The Times based on a ratio of population to crimes reported by local police agencies to the FBI in seven categories--murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft and auto theft. Each crime is given the same weight, so a homicide counts no more than a bike theft.

Among American cities with at least 100,000 residents, two affluent Ventura County suburbs are the most crime-free.

Simi Valley nudged rival Thousand Oaks for the top spot, while another Southland commuter city, Santa Clarita, ranked fifth. Glendale was seventh.

Simi Valley or Thousand Oaks has ranked first for 11 of the last 14 years. Amherst Town, a college community in suburban Buffalo, N.Y., was first the other three years.

This year, four Orange County cities ranked in the nation's top 25, with Huntington Beach eighth and Irvine ninth. If 98,500-resident Mission Viejo had been a bit larger, it would have placed first, just ahead of Simi Valley.

Although comparing crime rates among cities is discouraged by the FBI, the cities atop the informal rankings embrace them and even say they're good for home sales and luring clean, high-tech businesses.

"It's bragging rights, I suppose," Simi Valley Mayor Bill Davis said.

Davis said executives moving their companies to Simi Valley often say they've heard the city is very safe. "They want to know how we accomplished that," he said.

Author and demographic researcher Joel Kotkin said the safest big cities are essentially small towns that don't have much poverty or the types of businesses that usually generate crime such as bars and nightclubs--or major shopping centers.

Nor do they have much in common with the traditional big cities of America, which often rank low on the safety list.

"In California you have oversized suburbs that always get on the list," said Kotkin, a senior fellow at Pepperdine University and the Milken Institute. "They're able to create enclaves of safety that are pretty uniformly middle class. People move there for safety, so it's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Most of the top-rated cities are white-collar commuter havens with high employment, so relatively few people are around during the day to commit crime. And city officials often use planning devices to zone out the poor, building few apartments and scant housing for low-income workers, analysts said.

"As a rule, employment tends to be more high and more stable in affluent suburbs, and crimes rates tend to be lower," said Barry Glassner, a USC sociologist and author of "The Culture of Fear."

Nationwide, crime rose 2% last year after spiraling downward for a decade, the FBI reported Monday in preliminary figures. Violent offenses were up 0.6%, including the homicides of the Sept. 11 attacks, and property crime was up 2.2%.

In California, a crime survey of large cities showed about a 6% increase in 2001, but only after the crime rate had bottomed at the lowest level in three decades. The California crime rate was about 37 offenses per 1,000 residents, well below the U.S. rate of 41, in the most recent annual reports.

Leading the way are the suburbs 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. Their crime rates are about half the California norm, or less.

"These cities are very homogeneous--they have no great divisions between those who have and those who have not," said professor Paul Jesilow, of UC Irvine's department of criminology, law and society.

This economic--if not ethnic--sameness fosters a community of common values in which residents feel they can solve their problems by working with their neighbors, Jesilow said. "To some extent these low crime rates are the result of how people in cities such as Irvine and Glendale respond to crime," he said. "In suburbia, burglaries are committed by the children of residents. So if they have a burglary, they don't necessarily call police. They'd rather talk to Johnny's parents down the street."

The state's largest cities, which also experienced drops in crime over the last decade, saw major offenses climb sharply in 2001.

San Jose, San Diego, Anaheim, Long Beach and Santa Ana all have relatively low crime rates, but each had a crime hike last year.

Still, San Jose, the nation's 11th-largest city, ranked 12th of 235 on the safe-cities list with a rate of 27.99 offenses per 1,000 residents.

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