Crime’s up in Orange County; what’s to blame?

Crime rose 23 percent in Orange County last year – the greatest single-year jump in at least a decade – with the steepest increases coming in stolen vehicles, aggravated assaults, theft and burglaries, according to law enforcement records compiled by The Orange County Register.

Unlike other upticks in recent years, 2015’s crime bump was felt more broadly across the county, with 32 of 34 cities reporting more serious crimes – and in several cases spikes of 30 to 50 percent.

Longer term, the county is down from crime levels in 2006 – and well below peaks of gang- and drug-fueled violence of the 1980s and 1990s. Still, the year-over-year surge in the number of crimes has raised concerns in many communities.

In Seal Beach, police have run television ads urging residents to begin locking their cars. In Santa Ana, a rash of shootings, mostly attributed to gang activity, reached a rate of one per day early this year. And in west Garden Grove, a jump in thefts prompted residents to step up installations of video cameras and security systems.

“It seems like we’re under attack by people targeting our neighborhood, casing our neighborhood,” said Alan Derow, 55, a neighborhood watch leader who has lived in west Garden Grove for 23 years. “It wasn’t like that five years ago. We’ve become very vigilant.”

Many Orange County police officials blame the surge on a state law they say makes it difficult to keep drug addicts and other low-level offenders locked up, leaving them on the streets to repeat the same crimes and steal to feed their addictions.

Criminologists say that link is speculative, at best, and has not been supported by research of the complex variables that may affect crime rates. They also warn against faulting a major criminal justice initiative before its effects have been fully evaluated.

But even as they urge restraint in drawing conclusions about the causes, academics concede something is driving up crime throughout California, which saw a 13 percent increase in property crime and a 9 percent rise in violent crime in the first half of last year, according to FBI data.

By contrast, property crime nationally fell by 4.2 percent and violent crime rose 1.7 percent in the same time frame.

PROP. 47 TO BLAME?

So what changed in California? Law enforcement agencies throughout the state point to Proposition 47. The 2014 voter-approved measure reduced some felony theft and drug offenses to misdemeanors, making it more difficult to keep low-level offenders behind bars. The law took effect last year and has since had its intended impact of reducing state prison populations by more than 4,500 inmates, saving millions of dollars.

“We used to put someone in jail for methamphetamines and they’d be in jail for a while,” said Garden Grove Police spokesman Lt. Bob Bogue. “Now it’s just a citation. It’s not uncommon to arrest the same guy twice in a single day. It’s almost like criminals are laughing in our face.”

Bogue said Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputies who run the jail system have advised police not to book misdemeanor offenders into the county lockup because it’s not worth an officer’s time.

Sheriff’s Department spokesman Lt. Mark Stichter said deputies provide that advice based on state penal code statutes. To keep misdemeanor violators in custody until a court hearing, officers must be able to prove the suspects are likely to re-offend or pose a danger – a difficult legal burden. If the officer can’t justify incarceration, it’s better to simply cite and release in the field, Stichter said. Such citations can include possession of small amounts of meth, cocaine and heroin.

Susan Kang Schroeder, the district attorney’s chief of staff, said police officers have told her they have stopped taking some misdemeanor suspects into custody. She said they think, “Why bother arresting for cases that are almost non-crimes?”

In Derow’s Garden Grove neighborhood of single-family homes near the Westminster and Los Alamitos borders, small items have been taken in most of the thefts and home burglaries. “They can get in, get out, sell at pawn shops and get money,” he said.

Local criminologists warn that anecdotal evidence and short-term increases in crime have been used in the past by police, prosecutors and others to attack legislation they oppose – regardless of whether a causal link has been established.

Charis E. Kubrin, a UC Irvine professor of criminology, said that was the case in 2011, when police departments around the state predicted a new state law, AB109, would cause a crime wave. The legislation, intended to reduce California prison crowding, shifted some state inmates and ex-inmates to the supervision of county agencies.

Nearly five years later, the predictions of increased crime tied to the change were largely discredited in numerous studies by the nation’s top criminologists. The collected studies were published this month in a volume of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science that Kubrin co-edited.

“Prop. 47 has become the new scapegoat, just like realignment was a few years ago,” Kubrin said. “There has not been one single study that has linked rising crime rates to Proposition 47. If I’m going to make a bet, I’m going to say that this is not related to Prop. 47 because of what we found with realignment, which is a much more drastic measure because of its size.”

OTHER FACTORS

So what could be driving the statewide crime spike? Kubrin said she doesn’t know and wouldn’t speculate. But she said other established crime factors requiring additional study are poverty rates, unemployment, housing market changes, gang activity, drug markets, police-community relations and demographic shifts.

Orange County’s unemployment rate dropped in 2015, but rents hit an all-time high, creating a rental market that effectively doubled the county’s poverty rate, according to the San Francisco-based nonprofit California Housing Partnership Corp.

Another element of Prop. 47 that hasn’t been properly analyzed, she said, is what effect expanded drug treatment and community support services could have. Kubrin said that during the study of AB109, academics found that crime actually dropped in some counties that invested more in rehabilitation.

Prop. 47 promised to fund programs to help people stay out of prison and to pay for those services with the savings gained from reducing prison populations. But the state has yet to distribute any of that money and won’t do so until August.

When it does, Orange County will have to apply for the money annually and could be denied funding if its proposal isn’t picked. Also, California recently slashed its estimate of first-year savings produced by Prop. 47 – to $29.3 million from the $100 million to $200 million previously predicted by state analysts.

“We didn’t really do much with people once we diverted them from prison,” said UC Irvine criminology professor Elliott P. Currie. “In California, we have a history of passing this type of legislation but not backing it up with nearly the right level of community level resources.”

“We shouldn’t assume there is one easily identifiable cause in these short-term spikes,” Currie said. “But the bottom line contributor to these spikes in crime is that we haven’t done anything to deal with the social and personal issues that lead to crime – whether that is drug addiction, mental health, extreme poverty and depredation.”

IS UPTICK A TREND?

Statewide, violent crime and property rates are both only a third of their peaks, which occurred in 1992 and 1980 respectively, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. A similar pattern holds true in Orange County.

“These are upticks following drastic downticks over a number of years, even decades,” Kubrin said. “So the question is, will this continue? When does an uptick become a trend?”

In Seal Beach, police Sgt. Michael Henderson said people haven’t been diligent about locking their cars in past years because the city is viewed as safe. The department is encouraging residents to change habits in light of a 20 percent increase in property crime. But the larger perception of the city holds true, he said.

“We need to work hard to get a realistic perception,” he said, “and that perception is that Seal Beach is a very safe city, but theft happens.”

A CLOSER LOOK






































CITY/AREA

PROPERTY CRIMES

(% change)

VIOLENT CRIMES

(% change)

TOTAL CRIMES

(% change)

Aliso Viejo

363 (33%)

32 (-9%)

395 (28%)

Anaheim

10038 (22%)

1271 (15%)

11309 (22%)

Brea

1257 (12%)

80 (51%)

1337 (14%)

Buena Park

2556 (26%)

235 (8%)

2791 (24%)

Costa Mesa

4658 (35%)

378 (19%)

5036 (33%)

Cypress

888 (18%)

56 (10%)

944 (18%)

Dana Point

589 (27%)

57 (-20%)

646 (21%)

Fountain Valley

1495 (46%)

66 (-23%)

1561 (41%)

Fullerton

3759 (17%)

391 (15%)

4150 (17%)

Garden Grove

4525 (46%)

539 (33%)

5064 (45%)

Huntington Beach

4942 (17%)

420 (7%)

5362 (16%)

Irvine

3868 (27%)

144 (20%)

4012 (27%)

La Habra

1279 (22%)

104 (-1%)

1383 (20%)

La Palma

302 (22%)

13 (8%)

315 (22%)

Laguna Beach

502 (9%)

39 (-39%)

541 (3%)

Laguna Hills

522 (18%)

43 (-4%)

565 (16%)

Laguna Niguel

691 (25%)

49 (-33%)

740 (18%)

Laguna Woods

140 (19%)

5 (-17%)

145 (17%)

Lake Forest

909 (33%)

108 (4%)

1017 (29%)

Los Alamitos

224 (10%)

18 (13%)

242 (10%)

Mission Viejo

1092 (26%)

86 (21%)

1178 (26%)

Newport Beach

2037 (8%)

104 (-5%)

2141 (8%)

Orange

2897 (29%)

172 (21%)

3069 (29%)

Placentia

743 (2%)

76 (-7%)

819 (1%)

Rancho Santa Margarita

303 (49%)

44 (63%)

347 (51%)

San Clemente

771 (12%)

79 (14%)

850 (12%)

San Juan Capistrano

429 (12%)

66 (6%)

495 (11%)

Santa Ana

7270 (26%)

1627 (29%)

8897 (26%)

Seal Beach

591 (20%)

25 (-4%)

616 (18%)

Stanton

770 (13%)

153 (23%)

923 (14%)

Tustin

1697 (25%)

128 (-3%)

1825 (23%)

Villa Park

83 (-1%)

1 (-80%)

84 (-6%)

Westminster

2718 (23%)

292 (51%)

3010 (25%)

Yorba Linda

650 (-7%)

39 (-13%)

689 (-8%)

Unincoporated county

1265 (9%)

213 (-15%)

1478 (5%)

O.C.

66823 (23%)

7153 (15%)

73976 (23%)

Contact the writer: jgraham@ocregister.com or 714-796-7960

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