Level lowest in two decades, though assaults show rise
By Daryl Kelley
Serious crime in Ojai fell last year to one of the lowest levels in two decades, as thefts from automobiles plummeted even as felony assaults ticked up from 2007, according to new crime reports.
Overall, Ojai experienced 189 serious crimes in 2008, compared with 263 the previous year and 257 in 2006, reported the county Sheriff’s Department, which polices Ojai and the rest of the Ojai Valley.
That’s a 28 percent overall drop in crime in Ojai last year compared with 2007.
“Ojai continues to be a safe place to live and visit,” said Sheriff’s Capt. Chris Dunn, who functions as Ojai’s police chief.
Crime has been lower in Ojai in only one other year since 1990, with 177 offenses in 2001, data shows.
And last year’s total of 189 offenses compares favorably with Ojai’s average of 222 crimes a year this decade and 251 crimes annually during the last two decades.
That’s likely because of the “vigilance of our residents and business owners,” Dunn said.
Meanwhile, crime in the Ojai Valley’s unincorporated areas, such as Meiners Oaks, Oak View and Casitas Springs, dropped slightly last year, from 446 offenses to 439, with a sharp drop in vehicle burglaries and a big increase in home burglaries. Violent crime was up slightly.
The police chief, who was scheduled to present an analysis to the City Council on Tuesday evening, said crime plummeted in the city last year because local residents responded to a spate of thefts from autos in 2007 by being more careful to lock their cars and stow valuables.
Thefts from autos dropped two-thirds in a year, he said, from 84 to 27. But he also warned that auto burglaries are up sharply in 2009 and that residents must not become complacent. Auto thefts have spiked this year, for example, at hiking trailheads, he said.
Meanwhile, crimes of violence in Ojai increased from 10 to 15 last year, because felony assaults more than doubled, from five to 11. There were no murders in Ojai in 2008, just one rape and three robberies.
The 15 acts of felony violence are lower than the annual average for Ojai this decade and well below the city’s rate of violence in the 1990s.
“It should be noted that … homicide, rape and robbery remain at very low levels,” Dunn said in his report.
The sole rape charge resulted from a 15-year-old girl reporting a sexual assault by her boyfriend, he reported. And the three robberies resulted from incidents in which three young friends stole from a fourth, a suspect stole prescription medication from a victim who refused to turn it over and a junior high school student was assaulted in a bathroom.
While assaults often surge during times of high youth gang activity, Dunn said that was not the cause of the jump in Ojai last year. He said domestic violence was up and assaults came from throughout the community.
Indeed, in his report to the city, Dunn said the Ojai Valley has a lower level of gang activity than elsewhere in Ventura County.
“We are fortunate that the gang members in the Ojai Valley area are less sophisticated and maintain fewer members than most of the gangs in other cities in the county,” the police chief wrote. “While their membership continues to remain relatively small, we understand that even a few can distress an entire community.”
Yet, Dunn noted that two small rival gangs remain active in the valley, an Ojai-based Latino gang and an Oak View-based gang that holds white supremacist beliefs.
“Conflicts between these two groups normally occur throughout the Ojai Valley and the Ventura Avenue area (of Ventura),” he wrote.
Statistics for the valley’s unincorporated areas show that violent crime was up one offense overall, as rapes increased from three to five and robberies were up from eight to 11. But there were no homicides and felony assaults dropped from 39 to 35.
And a midyear report found that some gang activity, which jumped in Ojai in 2006 and 2007, had shifted out of the city to Meiners Oaks and Oak View.
A Sheriff’s Department anti-gang unit operating in western Ventura County, including the Ojai Valley, has also led to a reduction in gang-related assaults. Just three of the 11 assaults in Ojai have been tied to gangs so far, Dunn said. Also, a spate of gang-related violence in 2006 prompted the conviction of a dozen youths, taking them off the street at least temporarily.
Other indicators also suggest a drop in criminal activity in 2008, at least in the city of Ojai.
Arrests dropped from 569 to 525 in Ojai last year, while arrests were up slightly in the unincorporated area of the valley, Dunn reported.
Calls for police assistance also dropped last year in Ojai, from 3,545 in 2007 to 3,471 in 2008. Last year’s level was slightly below average during the last six years. Still, a breakdown shows that reports of violent activity were up during the last year as were disturbance calls, while vandalism and suspicious activity calls were off sharply.
In the unincorporated area, police calls were up slightly and reached a six-year high at 6,490, up from 5,268 in 2003.
In the city and the rest of the valley, police response to calls was also quicker in 2008, Dunn reported. The time it takes to get to a possible crime scene during an emergency fell from 7.82 minutes in 2005 to 5.55 minutes in 2008, while non-emergency response times also dropped. Response time in unincorporated areas fell from 11.53 minutes in 2005 to 8.75 minutes last year.
“For emergency calls the city of Ojai has the shortest response time of all the contract cities,” Dunn noted.
Ojai is the smallest of the five local cities in which the Sheriff’s Department provides police protection. And in other city-to-city comparisons, Ojai does not fare as well.
While Ojai’s crime rate, the number of crimes per 1,000 residents, dropped dramatically last year, its rate of 23.17 was still the highest of the sheriff’s contract cities and higher than the incidence of crime in the unincorporated area the Sheriff Department patrols.
By comparison, Thousand Oaks had 15.03 crimes per 1,000 residents, Moorpark had 16.76, Camarillo 17.20 and Fillmore 19.7.
However, Fillmore’s violent crime rate was substantially higher than Ojai’s as was the incidence of violent crime in the county’s unincorporated areas, including much of the Ojai Valley.
Of Ventura County’s 10 cities, Ojai was the only one without a homicide last year. Oxnard had 13 and every other city besides Ojai had at least two.
Dunn said that Ojai has a higher crime rate than other cities patrolled by the sheriff, because it is the center of activity in the 35,000-resident Ojai Valley.
The city’s allure also draws many tourists on weekends, which attracts thieves.
“Our main drag is a highway,” Dunn said. “And just possibly if you’re an opportunistic thief, you’re going to go where the money is.”
Receiving special note in Dunn’s report was the effectiveness of the city’s so-called Social Host Ordinance.
That three-year-old ordinance carries a fine of $1,000 for anyone who allows underage drinking at a residence. So far, 11 city residents and 25 residents of the rest of the valley have been fined, the police chief said.
But, in 2008, just one city resident was cited for hosting a party at which underage children were served alcohol, while eight residents in unincorporated areas were cited last year.
Deputies and state investigators also cited seven local businesses for selling alcohol to minors.
“It is my opinion that the Social Host Ordinance and alcohol sales operations have been and will continue to be successful in combating underage drinking,” Dunn reported to the council.