Irvine’s record-low crime rate could end in 2015

Irvine, long known as one of the nation’s safest cities, hit a new milestone last year by notching its lowest-ever crime rate But that record appears threatened by an uptick in 2015.

2014 marked the 11th time Irvine recorded the fewest violent crimes per capita of any U.S. city with more than 100,000 residents, according to FBI statistics released Monday.

The city, with a population of more than 240,000, saw only 120 violent offenses, fewer than one every three days on average.

That rock-bottom number, combined with just more than 3,000 property crimes, made Irvine’s 2014 per-capita rate its lowest.

But those numbers have started to bounce back, according to data police provided to the Daily Pilot.

From January through August this year, violent crime rose almost 25%, and overall crime rose more than 26%, compared with the same period in 2014.

With so few violent crimes as a baseline, even a small numerical increase can be statistically significant in Irvine.

For instance, there were two homicides through August this year compared with zero last year. Year-to-date, there have also been three more rapes, 11 more robberies and two more serious assaults.

Theft showed the single largest numerical increase with 2,075 through August this year compared with 1,553 during that period last year. There were 133 thefts of vehicles compared with 74 last year.

Burglary was the only category that decreased, from 367 to 319 to date.

Irvine police say the crime bump may have to do with California voters’ decision in November to reduce penalties for some nonviolent crimes.

“We fear that there is a relationship between the increase in property crime and Prop. 47,” Irvine police spokeswoman Farrah Emami said.

When Proposition 47 passed in November, it changed a swath of nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors. This meant less punishment for crimes like certain drug offenses and property crimes with a value under $950.

“Many of the violations for theft-related crimes would previously have been processed by the court as a felony with possible incarceration as a penalty,” Emami said. “And those cases are now either being handled as misdemeanors or citations, with little or no penalties.”

This made situations like one in February possible, when Irvine police arrested the same man twice in five hours on suspicion of heroin possession.

Other California law enforcement agencies also have pointed to Proposition 47 as a possible reason for rising crime.

In July, Newport Beach Police Chief Jay Johnson said officers are now working with a “catch-and-release” system for criminals who have benefited from Proposition 47, state prison realignment and the softening of California’s three-strikes law.

But hard evidence of what’s driving crime trends is scarce.

UC Irvine criminology professor Charis Kubrin cautioned against drawing conclusions just from statistics.

“The property crime rate could be driven up by something that has nothing to do with Prop.-47ers or it could be completely driven up by Prop.-47ers,” she said.

It could take years to adequately analyze what effect, if any, the new laws had, Kubrin said.