Serious crime in Ventura climbed sharply last year despite police success in holding the line against gang violence that erupted in other west county communities.
Ventura kept its streets relatively safe from physical violence with a low level of felony assaults, a crime often tied to youth gangs.
But plagued by a rash of thefts and auto break-ins attributed to drug users, the historic beach town also retained the unwelcome distinction of having the highest crime rate among Ventura County's 10 cities.
"We do focus on trying to prevent the violent crimes, because that's where our limited resources can be better used," Ventura Police Lt. John Garner said. "We haven't put the resources into property crimes ... [but] that's something we're going to look at this year."
So far, the Police Department has redeployed six detectives, who had worked their property crime details during the day, to evening shifts or special assignments in high-theft areas.
Those include the beachfront and apartment and condo complexes where cars are left outdoors. Ventura has an unusually high number of such projects.
"We have a lot of high-density areas where they don't have parking garages," Garner said. "That's where more of the auto burglaries have been taking place."
Garner said auto break-ins have been a problem during the last year as more drug offenders have stayed out of jail under Proposition 36. That 2000 ballot initiative took away a judge's option to jail first- and second-time drug offenders who are deemed nonviolent and aren't dealers. They are automatically ordered into treatment.
"We think the fact there are more drug offenders on the street instead of in jail has an effect on the theft rate," Garner said. "Auto burglaries are up significantly. A large percentage of drug-related offenses are financed by people who commit property crimes."
Likewise, Garner said auto thefts were up again in 2002 and have now climbed from 196 to 263 in two years.
Largely because of the jumps in auto thefts and burglaries, Ventura's overall crime total increased by 287 offenses over the previous year, to 3,657. But that comes after a decade in which the city's crime rate fell almost by half.
Ventura's crime rate of 35.8 per 1,000 residents is higher than those of Santa Paula, Ojai and Oxnard. But when violence alone is considered, Ventura's rate is far lower than those of Santa Paula and Oxnard, or even the much smaller cities of Fillmore and Port Hueneme.
Ventura's violent-crime rate -- a ratio of homicide, rape, robbery and felony assaults to population -- was 2.8 per 1,000 residents last year, compared with 4.8 in Fillmore, 4.6 in Oxnard, 3.6 in Port Hueneme and 3.4 in Santa Paula.
Ventura's dramatic drop in violent crime -- from 420 incidents in 1991 to 286 last year -- comes mostly because of the police crackdown on gangs, Garner said.
An eight-officer gang suppression task force works closely with officers assigned to middle and secondary schools.
"That has a direct effect of knowing who the players are in each of our gangs," Garner said. "Each officer is assigned a separate gang."
So while gang-related violence flared in Oxnard and Fillmore last year, it was stable in Ventura.
"I'm not sure, but maybe it's because we've stayed on top of them," Garner said. "And we haven't had a lot of interaction between gangs in our city and gangs in Oxnard and Santa Paula."
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Ventura crime is down from a peak of 59.4 offenses per 1,000 residents a decade ago to 35.8 in 2002.
*--* Fel- ony Homi- Rob- ass- Burg- Auto Total Year cide Rape bery ault lary Theft theft Arson crimes 1993 8 41 146 225 1,274 3,401 472 41 5,608 1999 3 19 94 218 649 1,795 211 33 3,022 2000 3 18 92 230 646 2,164 196 24 3,373 2001 2 28 91 160 565 2,280 231 13 3,370 2002 2 30 90 164 621 2,478 263 9 3,657