Violent crime decreased moderately in Costa Mesa last year while property crimes increased, according to FBI statistics released last week.
Reported violent crimes fell from 240 in 2010 to 231 in 2011, a decrease of 3.75%. Murders went from one to four — the highest number since 2006 — and reported rapes dropped from 34 to 30, according to the FBI's Unified Crime Reports data.
Property crimes — a category that includes burglary, auto theft and larceny — increased 11%.
Last year, Costa Mesa logged 340 more property crimes than in 2010, when 3,534 were reported. Burglaries alone went from 458 to 524.
One possible explanation for the increase in crime is the state's recently created realignment program, that went into effect in October. As part of the realignment, people sent to state prisons are released into probation rather than parole as a means of easing overcrowded state prisons.
Whether the changing patterns are indicative of a trend is hard to determine, experts said.
An uptick in murders, for example, doesn't necessarily indicate a change in overall safety, said UC Irvine criminologist John Hipp.
He pointed to the mass killing in Seal Beach, where eight murders in one day would show up in crime statistics as an anomaly not illustrative of the town's overall safety.
Recently, Hipp, along with 20 other researchers, produced a study on safety and economic trends in Southern California.
He said a reliably consistent indicator of an area's safety is the number of reported vehicles stolen because victims consistently report that particular crime at a rate of about 95% — a much higher rate than other crimes where victims choose not to come forward.
Last year, Costa Mesa drivers reported 282 stolen vehicles — the same as in 2010, crime data show. In reviewing the number of stolen vehicles since 2004 the Unified Crime Reports show that the recent high was 555 stolen cars in 2005.
Also, a drop in crime may not necessarily mean a city is safer but could mean that people feel less comfortable reporting crime, Hipp said, adding he could not speak specifically to Costa Mesa.
The FBI on its website cautions against using crime statistics as comparisons among cities, because crime "is a sociological phenomenon influenced by a variety of factors."
The Unified Crime Reports are compiled from data the FBI collects from cities across the country with populations greater than 100,000.
Because Newport Beach and Irvine have less than 100,000 residents, it is not included in the report.