Port Hueneme's crime roller coaster turned steeply upward in 2002, as reported offenses surged 14.5% after a drop of similar proportions the year before.
As with many small towns, crime in the 21,850-resident coastal city sometimes lurches wildly from year to year for no discernable reason other than thefts by a few criminals, Police Chief Fernando Estrella said.
Last year, for example, thieves took advantage of residents' laid-back approach to locking automobiles, while two sets of strong-arm robbers pushed violence upward, he said.
"I don't have a magical answer for this," Estrella said. "But thefts from vehicles accounted for a lot of it. People left cell phones, wallets and laptop computers visible in their cars. And we had instances where individuals were able to pull three or four robberies before they were caught."
Robberies jumped from 24 to 37 as crooks pulled off a series of supermarket, convenience store and fast-food restaurant holdups. And thefts increased by 67 to 315.
Overall, Port Hueneme police reported 554 serious crimes last year, down from a peak of 981 in 1991. But the crime rate of the slow-growing city is still only half of what it was 12 years ago.
The crime rate is a ratio of population to crimes reported by local police agencies to the FBI in eight categories: homicide, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, theft, auto theft and arson. Each crime is given the same weight, so a homicide counts no more than a bike theft.
The rate of criminal offenses in Port Hueneme last year was about 25 per 1,000 residents, slightly higher than that for the entire county. The state crime rate was about 39 offenses per 1,000 residents, and the national rate was nearly 42 in the most recent reports. Preliminary reports indicate sharp increases across the nation for 2002.
Port Hueneme crime increased in five of eight categories, including auto thefts, which soared from 39 to 61.
"There were a number of [drivers] who were careless," Estrella said. "In some cases, people left their keys in the ignition."
A revived Neighborhood Watch program reversed a disturbing trend from the year before, cutting burglaries from 126 to 93, Estrella said.
"It's an overall philosophy of law enforcement working in conjunction with the community," Estrella said. "But these [statistics] show we still need to do more work to get information out to the community."
His job this year, Estrella said, is to let Port Hueneme residents know they have to take greater care to lock their cars while remaining alert for burglars. Police are expanding the department's Web site to include more information on crime prevention, he said.
The city also recently established four crime reporting districts and assigned a senior police officer to each, so residents can quickly reach someone who is aware of the trends in their neighborhoods. The contact information is on the Web site. The city's small Police Department has 23 sworn officers, down one from the year before. Two slots are vacant and should be filled soon.
"I think we did a good job overall with the resources we have," Estrella said.
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Port Hueneme crime is down from a peak of 49 offenses per 1,000 residents 12 years ago to 25.4 in 2002.
*--* Fel- ony Homi- Rob- ass- Burg- Auto Total Year cide Rape bery ault lary Theft theft Arson crimes 1991 0 5 37 122 261 471 82 3 981 1999 0 9 32 29 137 336 35 1 579 2000 1 6 31 27 91 355 48 2 561 2001 0 9 24 37 126 248 39 1 484 2002 1 6 37 35 93 315 61 6 554
Source: Ventura County Sheriffs Department