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Ventura County

Men in Blue Make Some See Red

Ojai: A stepped-up effort to enforce traffic laws draws complaints. But police chief insists that most residents are appreciative.


Trouble's brewing in bucolic Ojai. And the guys in the black hats, some residents say, are overzealous sheriff's deputies in police cruisers.

In a time when cities skimp to put more police on the street, some residents in this quiet town of artists, giant oaks and famously pink sunsets say they have too many cops.

"We're over-policed," said artist Sarra Jubinville, 65, an Ojai-area resident for 25 years. "Citizens are intimidated by the heavy-handed and ubiquitous police presence."

Jubinville said she has gathered 250 signatures on petitions posted around town asking the City Council to form a citizens' commission to stop officers from "over-exerting their authority in what could be considered an aggressive and bullying manner."

Jubinville plans a "town hall" meeting Oct. 2 at which residents will be able to share their stories about what they see as police harassment. "Democracy Is Coming to Ojai!" proclaim fliers she has posted at the post office, playhouse and a health food store.

Sheriff's Capt. Gary Pentis, who functions as the Ojai police chief, said people shouldn't make too much of what he considers an ill-advised campaign by Jubinville and a handful of others.

"It's a little frustrating, because the [officers] at this station do a really good job, and the public really appreciates what we do," Pentis said. "But we have a couple of fringe people who are stirring things up."

It's true, he said, that deputies more than doubled the number of motor vehicle and pedestrian citations they wrote in Ojai during the first half of this year, compared with the first six months of 2001--from 325 to 677.

But that was a concerted strategy to make local motorists slow down and follow the law, he said, and not the result of ticky-tack enforcement aimed at raising money through fines, as critics maintain.

Five Ojai pedestrians, including two students crossing a street near Nordhoff High School, have been injured by motorists in the last 12 months, the captain said. At one busy intersection, there were 14 traffic accidents because of failure to heed stop signs.

And residents of several neighborhoods asked the City Council for beefed-up patrols because motorists were taking shortcuts across town and speeding down residential streets, he said.

As a result, the City Council hired motorcycle Officer Tom Triplett last fall to enforce traffic laws. Pentis also ordered officers in the two patrol cars that cruise Ojai each day to step up their enforcement of traffic and parking violations. Pentis said Triplett writes only two or three tickets a day, about one-third the usual for a motorcycle officer.

But in recent months, the moves have drawn complaints from Jubinville and others. Ojai resident John Wilcock, who publishes the Ojai Orange newspaper, declared in a July letter to the editor of another paper: "The drawback to a town with very little crime is that the occupying force has to find something to do to justify their day's 'work.' "

Wilcock, who was ticketed three times in a month, said he wrote his letter to let off steam, but then received about 20 calls from other angry motorists. "Obviously, it was much deeper than I had imagined," he said.

Mary Bowen, 86, said Triplett drove his motorcycle out from behind a bush at a deserted intersection near the Nordhoff Cemetery to ticket her, claiming that she had rolled through a stop sign at 10 mph.

"I stopped. I had my foot on the brake," said Bowen. "I think he was lying in wait for people like me, and he took advantage of me. I've been driving since I was 15 years old, and I've never had a ticket."

But she paid her $104 fine.

After Wilcock's letter was published, Pentis said he reviewed hundreds of citations to see if he could find a problem.

"The majority I reviewed were for at least 15 miles per hour over the speed limit. And the stop-sign violations all identified the vehicle as running through the sign at 7 to 10 miles per hour," he said. "So I feel very comfortable saying our [officers] are doing a good job."

Pentis said Wilcock is simply wrong in believing sheriff's deputies are an occupying force, because several officers graduated from the local public high school and 16 live in the Ojai Valley.

City Councilwoman Rae Hanstad said she is pleased with the way deputies have addressed a speeding problem that residents often complained about.

"I'm out and about in this community all the time," said Hanstad, interim director of the Ojai Valley Museum. "And I have not heard one complaint from a constituent."

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