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Vandalism Incidents Jumped More Than 55% in ’93, Report Says : Thousand Oaks: Sheriff’s Department finds property and violent crimes dipped more than 5%, with the most significant reductions in thefts and burglaries.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Youth pranks, ranging from firecrackers exploding in mailboxes to graffiti blotching storefronts, surged more than 55% in Thousand Oaks last year, as home-grown vandals targeted a city known for its safe, well-tended streets.

Police recorded nearly 1,000 incidents of vandalism last year, and almost half of those cases were graffiti-related. Others involved breaking street lights, smashing glass to steal movie posters and other misdemeanors, which Sgt. Mike De Los Santos termed “crimes of opportunity.”

The dramatic increase in vandalism was the only sour note in an otherwise-glowing crime report released by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department this week. Property and violent crimes dipped more than 5% in Thousand Oaks last year, with the most significant reductions in theft and burglaries.

“It was good news,” Councilwoman Jaime Zukowski said. Yet she, like most of her colleagues, sought to downplay the praiseworthy statistics and focus on areas for improvement.

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“Visible crimes like vandalism were up,” she noted. “We need to see what can improve (those statistics) in this turbulent time.”

The jump in vandalism has baffled some politicians, who pride themselves on a zero-tolerance policy and an aggressive graffiti-removal program. But local teen-agers--who are responsible for most of the reported vandalism--fully understand their peers’ motivations.

“People just do it for a hobby,” said Mike Chock, 16, a junior at Thousand Oaks High School. “They have no other hobbies, so that’s mainly what they spend their time doing.”

Breaking from a basketball game at the city’s Teen Center, high school junior Scott Cook agreed.

Although he said he doesn’t “play the game” of serious vandalism, Cook does sketch out tagging monikers on paper for his buddies to spray-paint on local walls. “They just go out and do it for fun, I guess,” he said.

Armed with a quick-removal mandate that costs as much as $100,000 a year, Thousand Oaks employees succeed in wiping out most graffiti within 24 hours, so few scrawls mar the image of a tidy, spick-and-span city.

But, as city officials have repeatedly lamented, speedy cleanups do not solve the underlying problem.

“I found out when our children were growing up that they felt very protected in Thousand Oaks, so they try to create a little excitement for themselves,” Councilman Frank Schillo said. “We have to stay with these kids, to know what they’re doing. We can’t let down.”

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To deter taggers from leaving their marks in Thousand Oaks, the City Council last summer passed an ordinance banning the sale of spray paint and wide-tipped markers to minors. The same law requires retailers who carry graffiti materials to lock them in a secure display case.

The strict measures started to help toward the end of 1993. The number of graffiti cases per month dropped late in the fall and continued to decline through the first quarter of this year, said De Los Santos, who heads the gang intervention unit for Thousand Oaks.

“If (kids) really want the stuff, they can get an older brother to buy it, but the ordinance helps stop spur-of-the-moment purchases,” he added. “Each and every little thing helps.”

To further assist law enforcement, the City Council has sponsored a number of activities for youth, from the ever-bustling Teen Center to after-school sports leagues.

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“They need something to do to channel their energy and time into something constructive,” said Jay Dodwell, a youth outreach worker whose salary is jointly funded by the city and park district.

But despite the many recreational programs, constructive activities can be hard to find, especially for younger teen-agers who need to earn money. Youths under age 18 find it nearly impossible to land jobs in Thousand Oaks, said Harriet Shrater, a counselor with the Youth Employment Service.

Ironically, Shrater said she finds graffiti scribbled across the newsletters and brochures set out in the Youth Employment Service office to direct teen-agers toward available jobs. Many students who sit down at the table to wait for an appointment seem to find a blank corner of paper nearly irresistible, she said.

“You have to consider the teen-age mentality, where the thing to do is defy authority,” Shrater said. “In our day, the big way was shoplifting. Now, (graffiti) seems to be the safe way to do it.”

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