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Irvine marches to a peaceful drummer

In the Orange County city, people live in beige houses and feel safe taking walks after dark. It may be boring, but residents don't mind.

July 07, 2009|Tony Barboza

Jaci Woods is having trouble getting her neighbors to sign up for her WatchMail crime e-mail alerts. There's simply not enough crime in Irvine to warrant interest in dispatches about car burglaries, purse snatchings and stolen electronics.

Woods and her husband moved to Irvine from Virginia in 1971, the year the fledgling Orange County suburb incorporated, back when just a few thousand families were settling into sparkling new homes surrounded by ranch land. But the real estate broker worried that someday, as Irvine grew, it would succumb to big-city problems: overcrowding, traffic, noise, and escalating crime. But it hasn't.

Irvine -- 37 years old and now a city of more than 200,000 -- has been listed as the nation's safest city five years running, with less violent crime per capita than any other community over 100,000 people, according to FBI statistics.

Last year it experienced its lowest violent crime rate ever, with just 129 reported violent crimes and one homicide.

The tranquillity makes for a community where some feel carefree enough to keep their front doors unlocked and think nothing of taking a walk alone at night.

Woods, for instance, takes along pepper spray when she goes out for evening walks, but only for possible coyote encounters.

"We tend to get lax," Woods said. "We think: We're the safest city, we can leave things lying around, cars unlocked, purses and laptops in full view."

The top items in the crime blotter in the town's local newspaper paint the picture: stolen beer kegs from a concert amphitheater (they were empty) and a thief stealing school supplies and a clarinet from a car parked at an elementary school.

Irvine is so safe that some neighborhood watch groups have disbanded; it's the kind of place where residents call police to report dead crows on the road. And the police respond.

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The well-to-do, educated community, sheltered in the southern half of Orange County, seems a world away from the urban gridlock of Greater Los Angeles.

It is a university town where the median household income is nearly $100,000 a year.

It is an ethnically diverse upper middle-class community that has drawn people from across the country along with a sizable population of Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants, lured by its high-performing schools, plentiful jobs and tidy environs.

The city was designed with safety and clean aesthetics in mind, with curving streets that meander through 17 self-contained villages, each with its own grocery stores, shopping centers, grade schools and architectural style.

The result is that, although the town's as big as Modesto or Reno, its villages exude small-town America.

It's a place so clearly designed for the enjoyment of its own that out-of-towners routinely get lost on its curving thoroughfares and looping side streets. The lack of a street grid system can be off-putting to would-be criminals, who might struggle to find their way in-or out.

In Irvine you can't see a gas pump from the street because they're considered unpleasant to look at and are masked by lushly landscaped berms. Hedges cover walls that could host graffiti.

Mike LeBlanc, an Irvine Co. senior vice president, said elements of the city's design are meant to foster "a sense of cohesion and neighborliness," he said. "And you don't attract an element that need not be there."

Elliott Currie, a professor of criminology at UC Irvine, however, says it may be more realistic to credit its tight-knit neighborhoods, churches and schools.

It's a religiously tidy community. Homeowners associations regulate the smallest details: the shade of paint, from eggshell to beige, what trees may be planted, the mowing and edging of every stretch of grass.

Police Chief David Maggard said he sees his department as a service-based organization, operating under the assumption that safety is contagious.

"If people have a sense that their community is safe, they will go out at night, they will interact with their neighbors, they will use the parks," he said, "and that does have an impact on crime."

Cops don't come to Irvine to bust heads or run-and-gun, and several officers interviewed seemed satisfied that they are able to spend time solving cases that might be shrugged off in towns with more crime, even while some say the pace of activity in Irvine is at times too slow.

"It's not that there's absolutely nothing that happens in Irvine," said Barry Miller, a field training officer.

"It just seems like there's no call we won't take," he said.

On a recent afternoon, Miller responded to a typical call.

On the street of two-story suburban homes, lined with jacarandas and palms and curbside recycling bins, a father and his 14-year-old son were arguing about water polo practice while he gave his other son a haircut in the garage.

Two police cars were on the scene within minutes.

Miller defused the situation with some gentle words to the father and son, smiling as he stood on the front lawn, looking more the part of mediator than hardened lawman.

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