Serious crime surges 40% in Costa Mesa

Reports of serious crimes spiked about 40% in Costa Mesa during the first half of 2015, with double-digit percentage increases in all but one category compared with the same period last year, police statistics released Thursday show.

Violent crimes — rape, robbery, homicide and assault likely to cause great injury — rose more sharply, by 47%.

Twenty-nine more robberies, 10 more rapes and 20 more assaults drove that increase. There was one homicide in the first six months of this year.

Arson was the only type of crime that decreased.

Among property crimes, theft trended up the most, by 44%. Burglary increased by 23%, and vehicle theft rose by 38%.

Such a surge is not unique to Costa Mesa, according to the city’s Police Department.

“Statewide, law enforcement has expectantly experienced a general increase in Part 1 crimes, apparently in part due to prison realignment legislation and California’s Proposition 47 enacted late last year,” said Costa Mesa Police Lt. Greg Scott.

Part 1 crimes are categories defined by the FBI that cities across the nation use to track statistics. Prop. 47, which voters passed in November, reclassified some drug crimes and types of thefts as misdemeanors that carry lesser penalties. Realignment refers to the early release of certain non-violent offenders to comply with a court order to reduce prison overcrowding.

Indeed, some California cities are seeing crime increase after major declines in the past two decades, said UC Irvine professor of criminology Charis Kubrin.

“L.A. is really up,” she said, referring to that city’s 12.7% increase during the first half of 2015. “And that’s been making a lot of headlines, and people are frantic because L.A. is so broadly representative of the state as a whole.”

Of Costa Mesa’s even steeper increase, Kubrin said: “Those are big numbers. Those are numbers you’d want to keep your eye on and see if they persist over time.”

Kubrin cautioned that a six-month period is a small snapshot. She also said it’s difficult to isolate any one factor that is driving crime rates.

“We do not know who is responsible,” she said.

Crime in other Orange County cities also has climbed this year. Costa Mesa’s neighbor Newport Beach saw a 12% increase. Lake Forest crime surged 37%, and in Huntington Beach, it rose 11% through March.

Costa Mesa Mayor Steve Mensinger blamed Sacramento. He has criticized the state’s prison realignment program, which removed certain offenders from the prison system and placed them under supervision of local authorities.

“I have full confidence that our chief and Police Department will manage through the missteps of our state Legislature,” Mensinger said.

But City Councilwoman Katrina Foley said the root of the problem is closer to home.

“It’s simple,” Foley said. “It’s not complicated. We don’t have enough cops on the street.”

In the past two years, the Costa Mesa Police Department has been pushing to refill its ranks. Currently it is missing 25 officers of the 136 that would be considered a full complement. That’s down from 30 vacancies last year.

Some parolees and probationers agree with Foley’s assessment, according to a Police Department memo written in November.

The document outlines an October meeting at which state parole and county probation representatives told city officials that “offenders in Costa Mesa have verbalized their understanding that the Costa Mesa Police Department is ‘understaffed’ and sightings of police officers in the community are less frequent.”

One state official compared conditions at an unspecified Costa Mesa shopping center to a “prison yard” where parolees and probationers appeared to openly sell or buy drugs, the memo said.

On Thursday, police Capt. Mark Manly, who wrote the memo, downplayed those observations as “general opinions” that were relayed secondhand.

“I don’t think necessarily they spoke to the prevailing opinion of all parolees or probationers,” Manly said. “Nor do I think the common criminal has any real understanding of our police staffing.”

According to Kubrin, putting more officers in uniform hasn’t been shown to reduce crime unless a department is so understaffed that it can’t handle the basic demands of the area it polices.

“It’s their quality, really, not the quantity,” she said.

Despite being short-staffed, Costa Mesa’s department has almost always maintained its core function of patrolling the city, Manly said.

Instead of cutting from that unit, detectives, narcotics investigators and other officers working special details have been called in to cover gaps.

“We have been at or near full patrol staffing for quite some time,” Manly said.

Since January, the department has started to rebuild less-essential assignments, he said.

First on that list is a bicycle detail that will work with patrol officers in the field. Manly said he expects that unit to start work in the next few weeks.