After the bloodiest year in Santa Paula's long history, the Santa Clara Valley farm town is adopting new crime-fighting strategies aimed at staunching gang violence, closing bars that seem to invite violence and pushing police out of their cruisers and onto sidewalk beats to make the city feel safe again.
At a special City Council meeting Monday evening, Police Chief Bob Gonzales laid out plans to try to halt a rash of homicides that left six people dead last year and two dead so far this year -- giving the city the highest homicide rate among local cities.
Gonzales said it is time not only to reclaim the streets of this poor but picturesque 29,000-resident town, but to make it clear that the community has turned a corner in its fight against lawlessness.
Reported crime increased 6.5% in 2002, due partly to the highest number of homicides in the city's 101-year history and despite a sharp decline in felony violence overall.
"We're turning a page here," Gonzales said. "We're going to be more proactive."
If that is a familiar refrain, Gonzales says things are different this time.
He outlined a plan to redeploy his 29 officers, assigning two plainclothes investigators exclusively to anti-gang activities and directing that a uniformed officer walk Main Street several hours a day, six days a week, to bolster the spirits of merchants and emphasize the city's crime-prevention efforts.
An impetus for the redeployment is new City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, who said simple assertions that city police will try harder aren't good enough.
"People want to feel safe in their hometown, and we have an obligation to make them feel that way," Bobkiewicz said.
"There are issues of reality and issues of perception, and we have to address both."
The reality for Santa Paula is that serious crime reported to the FBI -- homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft, auto theft and arson -- increased from 852 incidents in 2001 to 907 last year.
The slaying of a Santa Paula couple in their bed last October was the most horrific crime Gonzales said he'd ever seen in the city.
Yet, most of the extra crimes occurred in property categories, offenses often linked with an uptick in drug use.
Though homicides and rapes increased, robberies fell from 56 to 33, and felony assaults dropped from 68 to 55.
So the reality is that Santa Paula's felony violence slackened from 125 offenses two years ago to 98.
That gives the city a crime rate of 31.5 offenses per 1,000 residents, down from 61.8 a decade ago and far below state and national averages.
Yet the perception persists that Santa Paula is not as safe as it should be, partly because it usually rivals Oxnard and Ventura for the highest crime rate in extremely safe Ventura County.
A good first step in addressing that perception, Bobkiewicz said, is aggressive community policing.
"We'll be getting cops out of cars and walking around, talking to people and listening to merchants," Bobkiewicz said. "We'll be getting back in touch on a person-to-person level."
The effort is starting on Main Street.
"One of the criticisms I've heard is that there isn't that kind of access to police," the city manager said.
Addressing negative perceptions, the city last month also hired a part-time employee to clean graffiti from walls, bridges and signs with a high-pressure water-blaster.
The city has set up a graffiti hotline to try to improve upon the eight citations a year police write for vandals.
"It's a priority call for us, because it's a quality-of-life issue," Gonzales said. "Everywhere we've cleaned, we go back to make sure it stays off the wall."
To fight serious crime, the kind often linked to gang activity, Gonzales said he is taking two patrol officers out of their black-and-whites, putting them in street clothes and making them exempt from routine calls.
"We're handpicking two who we believe have the ability to go out and make a difference, working with gangs and dope and graffiti," Gonzales said.
"They know the gang members already, so they know how to interact and the tendencies some of these people have to commit crime."
The officers will build upon a special program set up a year ago with a state grant, which pairs a police officer with a county probation officer.
The team works with juveniles who have repeatedly been in trouble or are at risk and their parents. The grant was renewed for a second year.
Another strategy is to reach out to the city's small homeless population, Gonzales said. A county-sponsored task force of eight agencies met last week to concentrate on the problem, he said.
"We want to see how we can make them safer, how we can change their lives for the better," Gonzales said.
Already effective is a special state Alcoholic Beverage Control program in its third year in Santa Paula.
Agents educate alcohol sellers about age violations, and undercover officers check bars for underage drinkers, service to inebriated customers, prostitution and narcotics.
Revocation is pending on the liquor licenses of two bars, La Cita on Main Street and Ruben's Lounge on Harvard Boulevard, Gonzales said. Two people were stabbed to death in separate incidents near Ruben's last year, he said.
"My desire is to close them down," the chief said.
Santa Paula took another action last year that Gonzales thinks will pay long-term dividends.
A 13-agent federal Drug Enforcement Administration unit worked the city undercover for 90 days before arresting 20 people last spring. Most pleaded guilty to drug-related crimes, Gonzales said.
"That had a big impact on the element that would have been out there selling dope, buying dope and doing robberies," he said.
An associated crackdown also increased the number of suspects cited for narcotics violations last year from 147 to 231. And the number of people arrested for being drunk in public doubled, from 19 to 38.
"We're not going to tolerate it anymore," Gonzales said.
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Santa Paula crime is down from a peak of 61.8 offenses per 1,000 residents 10 years ago to 31.5 in 2002.
*--* Fel- ony Homi- Rob- ass- Burg- Auto Total Year cide Rape bery ault lary Theft theft Arson crimes 1993 2 10 62 149 517 745 103 5 1,593 1999 1 9 41 115 295 329 77 12 879 2000 3 2 37 63 281 310 53 8 757 2001 0 1 56 68 292 352 70 14 852 2002 6 4 33 55 298 429 74 8 907
Source: Ventura County Sheriffs Department