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Simi Valley: The Land That Crime Forgot

Serious offenses are rare in this east Ventura County city, one of the nation's safest, and its police force aims to keep it that way.

September 21, 2003|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

It's 10 a.m. when the call comes in: A boy is shooting a BB gun out his second-floor bedroom window. Simi Valley Police Officer John Haffart shifts his black-and-white into gear and rolls to the scene.

Once there, Haffart chats with the boy's mother inside the family's suburban tract home. Ten minutes later, he emerges, a smile on his face. Mission accomplished.

The boy was told not to shoot his BB gun out the window again, and his mother promised to keep a closer eye on him.

Just another day in the life of a cop in one of America's most crime-free cities.

For a Simi Valley police officer, professional satisfaction comes not from the adrenaline rush of high-speed chases and drive-by shootings but more often from helping resolve neighborhood disputes and other minor offenses.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Officers' names -- An article in Sunday's California section about the Simi Valley Police Department misspelled the last names of Officer John Hoffart as Haffart and Officer Richard Wiggington as Widdington. It also incorrectly stated that the Ventura County Sheriff's Department arrested serial rapist Vincent Sanchez. The Simi Valley Police Department made the arrest.

"If you're looking to arrest bad guys 90% of the time, this isn't the place for you," said Simi Valley Officer Richard Widdington, who transferred to the department three years ago from the Los Angeles Police Department.

A spot on the Simi Valley police force has long been coveted by experienced cops seeking refuge from larger and more demanding agencies throughout Southern California.

Widdington transferred to Simi Valley after 6 1/2 years with the LAPD. He hadn't thought about leaving until a friend told him about a department that enjoyed wide community support, competitive salaries, modern equipment and a type of police work far different from the grueling big city.

"In the beginning, the slower pace took a lot of getting used to," Widdington said. "But you have more time to spend with individual people. You get to know people on a one-to-one basis. Here we have the time and the size to take care of problems in a sufficient manner."

About half the department's 140 sworn police officers transferred from other agencies, while the remainder arrived as rookies straight from the police academy, although the ratio changes every year, said Chief Mark Layhew, a 28-year veteran of the force.

The Ventura County suburb is also home to many police officers, sheriff's deputies and FBI agents who work throughout the region. According to 2000 census figures, 1,357 residents, or 2% of those over the age of 16 who are employed, work in law enforcement-related fields, including firefighting and protective services.

This may be another reason Simi Valley and its neighbor, Thousand Oaks, have consistently ranked among the safest cities in the nation, according to FBI and U.S. census data.

Layhew, who runs his department on a $21-million annual budget, said there were three key ingredients to creating and maintaining a safe city: a proactive police department, a supportive municipal government and cooperative residents. If just one of these elements is missing, the system will not work, he said.

In fact, an alert resident was responsible for helping officers capture two Moorpark gang members who allegedly robbed two people at knifepoint Friday night, police said.

The unidentified resident saw the suspects acting suspiciously at a local park and followed them, calling police on his cell phone. Within seconds, officers swooped into an area near Los Angeles and Orchid avenues and made the arrests.

Augusto Chapa, 20, and Adolfo Troncoso, 19, were being held on suspicion of robbing two men in separate locations and beating one of them. A third suspect remains at large.

"If you aren't responsive, you aren't going to get community members to pick up the phone and call," Layhew said. "My philosophy is, we're in the customer service business and the service we are providing is public safety."

Although felony assaults jumped nearly 13% in 2002, and thefts by about 6%, the crime rate in Simi Valley remained among the lowest in the department's history. A crime rate is a ratio of population to crimes reported by police agencies to the FBI in seven categories -- homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft and auto theft.

Police reported 1,776 serious crimes last year, down from a peak of 3,556 in 1992. The rate of criminal offenses in Simi Valley last year was about 15 per thousand residents, compared with 22 per thousand for all of Ventura County.

The California crime rate was about 39 offenses per thousand residents and the U.S. was nearly 42 per thousand.

There were no homicides in Simi Valley last year, but there were seven rapes and 26 robberies.

The most frequent crime that occurs in town is malicious mischief, which runs the gamut from breaking a neighbor's lawn sprinkler to pushing over a mailbox. Last year, there were 1,634 such incidents of misdemeanor vandalism.

But as Layhew acknowledges, police cannot take all the credit for the low crime rate. The city's socioeconomic status -- the median household income is $70,000 and a quarter of the population is college-educated -- also plays a part, experts say.

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