Explaining Costa Mesa’s crime drop


Editor’s note: This corrects the headline.

COSTA MESA — An aging population, community policing and less disposable income to spend on vice are among the reasons experts believe violent crime dropped in the city by 21%, despite a poor economy and smaller police force.

Newly released FBI statistics show that there were 64 fewer reported violent crimes in Costa Mesa. The total number of such crimes went from 304 in 2009 to 240 in 2010.

During this time, the police force

shrank from 164 officers three years ago to 139 now.

In separate interviews, Costa Mesa’s top chief and a criminologist at UC Irvine both suggested that bad economic times do not necessarily lead to a surge in crime.


“Recent data seems to indicate that’s not the case,” said interim Chief Steve Staveley, adding that four or five years ago the assumed correlation between the crime and economics was widely accepted.

Staveley attributed Costa Mesa’s drop in violent crime to several factors, including an increasingly aging population who is less likely to be involved in crime.

Criminologist Elliott Currie, a UCI professor, said often crime rates drop because of an economic downturn, with fewer people having money to indulge in vices that could create crime like alcohol or drug use.

During the Great Depression, Currie said, crime dropped in many places.

Those who lose their jobs during economically trying times are often in two-income households, qualify for safety nets like unemployment and are seen as “stable.” Such people, in Currie’s opinion, are not likely to be desperate enough to put food on the table by turning to crime.

“There is a relation between people not having a job and crime, but not in the short-term,” Currie said.

It is when whole groups of people are unemployed or working hard jobs for generations and become hopeless that crime begins to grow, Currie said.

Other factors that would account for fluctuations in crime rates include the state of local drug markets and tension between local gangs at the time, according to Currie.

In 2010, Costa Mesa property crimes dropped 3.8% from 3,321 to 3,194. Robberies dropped by 18%, from 114 in 2009 to 93 in 2010.

Other sizable drops include a 30% decrease in aggravated assault, from 162 in 2009 to 112 in 2010. Arson dropped by 28.5%, from 14 incidents in 2009 to 10 in 2010; and burglary dropped 11% from 516 in 2009 to 458 in 2010. The two areas that increased in incidents were motor vehicle theft and forcible rape.

The city averaged about one homicide a year.

Staveley said sometimes crime rates can be volatile and random, despite policing methods or other outside social factors.

He pointed to other factors in Costa Mesa that would account for the city’s decrease in crime, and a policing methodology used by CMPD for years.

“This department has a historic effort at community policing,” Staveley said. Costa Mesa “was doing community policing before it was called community policing. Rather than just address today’s call, [police officers] look for opportunities to solve the root problem.”

According to Staveley, all members on the force have used the community policing methodology since they have been on.

“The way they approach the work is they look for long-term solutions,” Staveley said.