Crime down in Oxnard but up in Ventura

In the past month alone, the streets of Oxnard have been witness to what seems like a surge in crimes more violent and shock-inducing than ever before.

A mother and son the victims of fatal gunfire in their own yard. An innocent woman passenger shot in the face while sitting in a car at a downtown stop light. A man the recipient of a gunshot to the hand after embroiled in a heated argument. One Oxnard businessman gunned down in front of a bank.

Reports of stabbings, assaults and altercations. Gang activity that speaks for itself. And don’t forget the ice cream vendor robberies, fast becoming a trend in the realm of local thievery. The list goes on.

For all its bad reputation, just when it seems like the “Compton of the 805” couldn’t get any worse, think again. According to information released last week, despite a late summertime spate of violence, Oxnard is experiencing a progressive drop in major crimes across the board.

In numbers compiled by authorities for January to June of 2008, violent crimes citywide were down a total 18.1 percent from about the same time last year.

Included in that list are homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults. Rapes have been committed 70 percent less, with six reported offenses in 2008, compared to 20 in the first half of 2007; followed by murders, down by 20 percent; and robberies and assaults, both down just under 20 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

Property crimes in Oxnard, according to the data, have increased by a slight 1.4 percent, due in part to a 3.4 percent hike in larcenies; so far, in 2008 there have been 1,384. Others in that category — burglary, auto theft and arson — have all decreased in the past year.

According to Jason Benites, Oxnard’s assistant chief of police, the crime drop is no fluke.

“During the past 16 years, we’ve observed continual reductions in crime from year to year,” he said.

At the start of that period, 1992, Benites explained, Oxnard had a rate of 67.87 crimes per 1,000 people. That number has fallen steadily and annually, he said, excepting the anomaly that was 2006, when the crime-per-person ratio was 28.05 offenses to 1,000 people.

Oxnard, the largest municipality in the county, has a population of roughly 200,000 residents.

Oxnard Police Sgt. Terry Burr, who was with the force in those days, chalks up the difference to an increased enforcement of gang activity, one of the dominating forces of Oxnard crime.

There are two injunctions currently in effect in Oxnard that identify members of both the Colonia and Southside Chiques, imposing restrictions on them, including curfews, tighter laws and stricter penalties.

The notion of designated “gang areas” wasn’t always perceived as a viable option, according to the sergeant.

“Several years ago, we had a chief and city council who didn’t want us to label the gang members on our street,” Burr said. “From then on, we had to educate them that we were having a big rush of a gang problem.”

So if the numbers speak for themselves, why does the stigma of Oxnard as a criminally infested warzone still persist?

“It’s a perception Ventura County has had about Oxnard,” Burr said. “We have lower-income housing, lower-income residents who live here. But we do have fantastic upper-level residents that have branched up around the Oxnard area. I think people continually hold on to these perceptions of what they had years ago when it was so terrible.

“There are several things people hold on to and don’t release,” he continued.

Compare that to Ventura, the “safer” of the two cities, where violent crime in the first half of 2008 is down only 1.1 percent from last year, according to records. Overall crime, noted Lt. Ray Vance of the Ventura Police Department, this year up until August, is up 7.5 percent.

“It would be more than that, but we’ve had an influx over the summer months of aggravated assaults,” he said.

“A large chunk of that is in the downtown area at closing time,” Vance continued. “We seem to get a lot of fights at bars in the area.”

Whether people just go crazy from the heat, have too much time on their hands, or some other inexplicable factor, police take note that the warmer weather months foster worsened criminal activity.

“Summertimes, schools are out, there are typically more people out for the tourism. They could be involved in crimes or be victims of crimes,” opines Vance.

“August was a bit of a heavier month. But that’s typical,” said Benites.

In comparison, statistics available from the Camarillo Police Department note that total violent crimes from January to June are down 20 percent from last year. There have been no homicides, but four rapes both years.

Last week, the sheriff’s department also released its own data, concluding that crime in unincorporated areas of Ventura County patrolled by police there is also down.