The scales have tipped in a friendly Ventura County rivalry that often decides the most crime-free big city in America. Bragging rights for 2003 will likely go to the leafy suburb of Thousand Oaks, instead of neighboring Simi Valley.
One of those two white-collar enclaves on the western flank of Los Angeles has claimed the mantle as the safest city in the U.S. with at least 100,000 residents for 12 of the last 14 years, with Simi Valley usually holding the edge.
Now it's apparently Thousand Oaks' turn. Preliminary crime reports give that city a crime rate of 16.25, compared with the 17.5 that Simi Valley reported two weeks ago.
"It's something that the Chamber of Commerce or people in the community might say, 'Yeah, hurrah,' about," said Sheriff's Cmdr. Keith Parks, who functions as Thousand Oaks' police chief. Indeed, real estate agents regularly reprint articles about the safe-city rankings, and employers cite them when recruiting.
"But what it really means is that this region is very safe," Parks said. "We've got a region where people are involved in their communities, where parents are involved with their kids. They spend so much time on youth sports, they don't have a chance to get in trouble."
Because Simi Valley has held the title of "safest city" more often, however, officials there take it more to heart.
"One of our primary goals is to maintain our designation as the safest city," Simi Valley Police Chief Mark Layhew said last year. "[But] the important thing is for us to do our best, no matter where we're ranked."
Final crime rankings will not be known until May, when the FBI releases 2003 crime data for more than 220 large cities nationwide.
A crime rate is a ratio of population to crimes reported to the FBI in eight categories -- homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft, auto theft and arson. Each crime is given the same weight, so a homicide counts no more than a bike theft.
That ratio last year favored 124,000-resident Thousand Oaks, which had 2,015 major crimes in a 1.9% decline from 2002, rather than 118,000-resident Simi Valley, which had 2,061 offenses, up 16% from the previous year.
The dip in Thousand Oaks was the result of sharp decreases in burglaries and thefts, and comes despite an upward swing in felony assaults attributed to more vigorous reporting of domestic violence and a few youth gang flare-ups.
Jolted in 2002 by window-smashing thieves who swiped credit cards from cars at fitness clubs and filched computer equipment at small businesses, Thousand Oaks responded with stiffer health club security, brighter lights at small shops -- and a few key arrests, officials said.
"We did make arrests of some people from L.A. who were responsible for burglaries in the fitness clubs," Parks said. "After the arrests, those people disappeared into the wind. They were gypsy types, who stole credit cards and within hours used them across the country."
The arrests were partly responsible for the city's 51 fewer thefts and 30 fewer burglaries last year, he said.
On the other hand, felony assaults soared 43% in Thousand Oaks, to 150.
"A big chunk of those are domestic violence," Parks said. "And we've had a few bar fights and a few gang assaults where we've taken a number of people to jail. But we just don't have much stranger-on-stranger violence."
One reason, he said, is that gang violence, which surged a decade ago, has abated.
"My gang team tells me that in the last 18 months, they have put 25 hard-core gang members in prison, and got enhanced sentences in each case," Parks said.
Today, three local gangs remain with about 175 members, he said, compared with about 400 members several years ago. The numbers have dropped as Thousand Oaks has spent extra money to hire a special six-officer anti-gang unit.
"These officers know gang members by sight and by name, and when they're arrested we make sure we get special gang probation terms, so they can't associate with other gang members," he said.
Overall, the Thousand Oaks City Council has added in recent years 16 officers to a force now totaling 110.
That includes the county's only full-time bicycle unit to patrol busy shopping areas and densely populated housing projects. It also includes two sergeants who resolve community disputes.
"We had one case where two families just didn't like each other, so Sgt. [Craig] Adford invited them down to the station for coffee and snacks, and we did a mediation," Parks said. "He guided them through recognizing that they don't have to agree, but they do have to live together because the quality of life in the neighborhood is important."
While Ventura County registered its highest homicide count since 1979 last year, Thousand Oaks recorded just one non-officer-involved slaying: 23-year-old Jordan Le Grand was killed during a home-invasion robbery. The case remains open.
In another fatality, sheriff's deputies killed James Daniels, a 19-year-old mentally ill man who was shot as he approached a Thousand Oaks swim school armed with a box-cutter-type knife.
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Thousand Oaks' crime fell from a peak of 33.1 offenses per 1,000 residents 13 years ago to 16.25 in 2003.
*--* Year Homi- Rape Robbery Felony Burgla Theft Auto Arson Total ry cide assault theft crimes 1991 1 19 78 261 982 1,725 333 55 3,454
1999 2 9 39 104 366 1,183 129 18 1,850
2000 3 22 37 115 326 1,286 146 24 1,959
2001 1 10 33 128 309 1,277 128 20 1,906
2002 0 19 35 105 364 1,359 149 24 2,055
2003 1 12 39 150 334 1,308 142 29 2,015
Source: Ventura County Sheriff's Department
Los Angeles Times