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Crime in County Up Again in '03

Gang violence and drug-related thefts surged in the last two years. Sheriff Brooks says area is still safe, but 'we're losing ground.'

March 06, 2004|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

After a decade of decline, crime in Ventura County increased for the second straight year in 2003, as gang violence and drug-related thefts surged in the safest urban area in the West.

Reported crime rose 6.1% last year, reaching levels not seen since 1998. Felony violence jumped nearly 16%, including a doubling of homicides due to a flurry of fatal attacks by youth gangs and prison parolees, authorities said.

The rate of crime in one of California's wealthiest counties increased to 23.7 per 1,000 residents in 2003, from 22.7 the previous year. By comparison, the California crime rate was 39.4 offenses per 1,000 residents, and the U.S. rate was 41.2 in the most recent reports.

"We're still a safe county, but we're losing ground," Sheriff Bob Brooks said. "Crime rates are going up, and we know the rates we had last year are not going to be the rates we have next year."

Budget constraints have cost jobs in the Sheriff's Department, Brooks said. Staffed with about 800 deputies eight years ago, his department has fewer than 700 today, Brooks said.

Last month, Brooks disbanded a 15-officer unit on which police agencies countywide relied to investigate gang violence.

"They put over 300 parolees in prison, arrested 14 murderers and supported almost every major investigation we had last year," Brooks said. "We'll still send investigators as we can, but we'll no longer saturate an area like we used to."

Major trends in the last two years -- surging gang violence and drug-related thefts -- have taxed authorities, Brooks said.

Local police chiefs and prosecutors agree that narcotics offenses involving petty thefts, and car and home burglaries are up because more drug offenders have stayed out of jail under Proposition 36, Brooks said. The 2000 ballot initiative took away judges' option to jail first- and second-time drug offenders who are deemed nonviolent or are not dealers. The offenders are automatically placed in treatment.

"Our feeling is that the property crime increase is directly related to Prop. 36, and the fact that drug offenders are remaining on the street," he said.

Dist. Atty. Greg Totten said he hoped to complete a study this year confirming the trend with hard data. "There's no question it's a significant factor in the rise of property crime," Totten said. "We've found a number of people who were not even making it to their first [counseling] appointment. There are cases where we've had new crimes committed by drug users en route to Prop. 36 treatment."

Countywide, authorities reported in November that only about 7% of 4,000 drug offenders treated under Proposition 36 had completed required treatment sessions and were declared drug-free. But program supporters said 40% were making progress toward beating their habits.

The county's 44 homicides last year, not counting five by police officers, were the most since the Oxnard gang wars of 1979.

Investigators in the Sheriff's Department and in Oxnard, where half the county's homicides occurred, said they were seeing something new: not just the tit-for-tat of street gangs but homicides attributable to contracts by prison gangs. "There's a new phenomenon where we have either a parolee as victim or as a suspect," Oxnard Police Chief Art Lopez said.

Oxnard recorded 22 slayings last year, the highest since 27 people were killed in 1979, Lopez said. He attributed seven of the killings to street gangs and four or five to prison parolees.

Overall, crime in the county's 10 cities and unincorporated areas increased by 1,072 incidents last year to 18,766, compared with more than 30,000 a decade ago, when the county had far fewer residents.

Felony violence was up by 316 incidents, or 15.6%, last year compared with the year before, and property crime was up by 756 incidents, or 4.8%.

The numbers reflect crime in eight categories reported annually to the FBI -- homicide, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, theft, auto theft and arson. Each crime is given the same weight, so a homicide counts for no more than a bike theft. A crime rate is a ratio of population to crimes in those eight categories.

Crime increased in four of Ventura County's five largest cities last year, falling only in Thousand Oaks, where decreases in burglaries and thefts offset an upswing in felony assaults.

Crime fell in four of the county's five smallest cities, rising only in Moorpark, where a 34% increase was the highest in the county. There, increases came mostly in theft, although robberies increased from two to seven and felony assaults from 27 to 42.

Moorpark remained, however, the safest city in the county and one of the most crime-free in the state: Its crime rate increased from 8.2 offenses per 1,000 residents to 10.6. Moorpark's affluent east county neighbors, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley, had rates of 16.3 and 17.5.

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