Newport Beach Police Chief Jay R. Johnson told a crowd of about 40 people Wednesday night that they have the ability to reduce crime in the city by 80%.
Johnson spoke at Newport Beach's City Hall at the request of the community group Speak Up Newport.
He gave the audience an update on city crime statistics and answered questions, but mostly, the chief emphasized the community's role in keeping its neighborhoods crime free.
"If you lock your car, you lock your house and you don't leave your valuables in plain sight, 80% of our crimes go away," he said.
He often called Newport Beach the safest city he knows, citing record low crime rates for the past three years.
Of that record-low rate, only 4% are violent crimes. The bulk of crimes, such as the roughly 2,300 thefts per year, are property related, Johnson said.
Those property crimes, though, have a cumulative effect, costing the city from $10 million to $12 million a year, according to the chief.
At past events, Johnson has illustrated residents' complacency in regard to property crimes by having police employees sweep through the parking lot while he was speaking.
This time, with 60 cars in the parking lot, Johnson's crew found 36 cars that were unlocked or had valuables in plain view.
Johnson ticked off what they found: 12 purses, six briefcases, a wallet, two laptops, five iPads and multiple gym bags.
That parking lot would have been ripe for theft, the chief said.
Criminals will "handle surf" — or try the doors — through groups of cars looking for one that is unlocked.
"There's a difference between breaking into a locked car and taking something from an unlocked car," Johnson said. "All of the crooks know the difference."
Stealing from an unlocked car will result in only a petty theft charge that merits little to no jail time, he said, but breaking into a locked car to steal the same item would net a felony charge.
So far in 2013, crime statistics are dead even with 2012, according to Johnson.
That's despite California's realignment program that shifts responsibility for many non-serious offenders from the state prison system to the local levels.
"The bottom line fact is there are a lot more career criminals out on the streets today," said Johnson, who added that 76% of Newport's arrests are of people from outside the city.
Johnson said the department has reorganized to push more officers out on the streets and fielded teams to check in on probationers.
But the city will also soon launch an educational program aimed at residents.
It will teach them how they can help reduce property crime, starting with locking their doors.
"That is how you can reduce crime 80% in our city," he said.