After a decade of declining crime, Ventura County experienced an increase in serious offenses in 2002, a sign that the safest urban area in the West is not immune to state and national trends.
Reported crime rose last year by 4.2%, including a steep increase in property crimes related to drug use. But because of population growth, the county's crime rate remained nearly the same as the year before, about half its peak in 1991, a Times analysis shows.
The rate of criminal offenses in the county, one of California's richest, ticked upward to 22.7 per 1,000 residents in 2002, from 22.0 per 1,000 the previous year. By comparison, the California crime rate was 39 offenses per 1,000 residents, and the U.S. rate was nearly 42 in the most recent reports.
"We're certainly concerned about the upturn in crime and the increased responsibilities of homeland defense that have taxed our resources this past year," said Sheriff Bob Brooks. "But what really concerns us is the lack of governmental resources to deal with the kinds of things we have been able to normally address."
State budget cutbacks have stopped local governments from making significant increases in law enforcement spending in response to the recent rise in crime.
Making things worse, the Sheriff's Department, which patrols five local cities and unincorporated areas, is down seven officers because of National Guard deployment.
And the department is regularly called upon to investigate tips about security threats or to serve on standby in case protests against the Iraq war become violent, Brooks said.
From a strict crime-fighting standpoint, major new trends in Ventura County last year were a flare-up in gang violence and a continued increase in petty thefts and so-called "identity thefts" spawned by increased drug use, Brooks said. In the sheriff's jurisdiction alone, narcotics arrests were up nearly 1,000, or 35%, last year.
"We're seeing a rebound in heroin," Brooks said. "But probably more alarming is the increase in prescription and designer drugs. They're relatively inexpensive and much easier to distribute down to the lower levels, including the schools. If you can sell a high for $5, it opens up a whole new market."
Brooks said narcotics offenses are up -- along with petty thefts and auto break-ins -- because 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.
"People are being assigned to treatment without the overhanging threat of jail, and very few follow through," the sheriff said. "So they keep recommitting [crimes] until they've been rearrested enough times to land in jail."
Overall, crime in the county's 10 cities and unincorporated areas increased by 715 incidents last year to 17,709, compared with more than 30,000 a decade ago, when the county had far fewer residents. Felony violence was up 1.4% in 2002 compared with the year before, and property crime was up 4.6%.
The numbers reflect crime in eight categories reported annually to the FBI -- homicide, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, theft, auto theft and arson. Each crime is given the same weight, so a homicide counts for no more than a bike theft.
Crime increased in eight local cities but fell 14.5% in Moorpark, as felony violence plummeted nearly one-third, and declined 9.9% in Camarillo, as home burglaries dropped about one-third.
Increases were most dramatic in the county's smallest cities -- Fillmore, Port Hueneme and Ojai -- where offenses jumped 14% to 36%.
In tiny Ojai, where drug offenses and related thefts are the biggest worries of police, crime jumped nearly 36%, mostly because of a large increase in minor thefts.
"Theft goes hand in hand with our increase in substance abuse," said Sheriff's Capt. Gary Pentis, who serves as Ojai's police chief. "When I go back through the records, there's an obvious link. Theft supports drug habits, especially auto burglaries and petty thefts."
The white-collar commuter enclaves of the east county were far safer than the cities of the agricultural west, which are more reflective of California as a whole.
As usual, 33,000-resident Moorpark was the county's most crime-free city and among the safest in the state. Its crime rate of about eight offenses per 1,000 residents is only half that of the county's next-safest city, neighboring Simi Valley.
Less fortunate were Moorpark's east county neighbors, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, which regularly rank nationally as the two most crime-free cities with at least 100,000 residents.
Crime was up slightly in Simi Valley for the third straight year. But, after a particularly violent 2001, the suburban city experienced a drop in many violent offenses last year .
"We're very, very pleased with these numbers and the continuing pattern of having a very safe city," said Police Chief Mark Layhew.
Thousand Oaks also saw felony violence decline, but crime was up sharply overall because that affluent suburb was increasingly victimized by window-smashing thieves who swiped credit cards from cars at fitness clubs and filched computer equipment from desktops at small businesses.
"Property crime is where we had our problems," said Sheriff's Cmdr. Keith Parks, who acts as police chief in Thousand Oaks. "But our violent crimes went down almost 8%."
In actual numbers, Oxnard, the county's largest city, had the most crime in the county. But its 2.1% increase was so small that the fast-growing city's crime rate actually declined once its population increase was factored in. A crime rate is a ratio of population to crime.