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Santa Monica Police officers search three suspicious individuals at Virginia Avenue Park on Wednesday afternoon. Violent crime dropped by 7 percent in 2008, according to figures released by the SMPD. Police Chief Tim Jackman credited the decrease to increased community involvement and connecting homeless to services. (photo by Brandon Wise)

PUBLIC SAFETY FACILITY — Violent crimes in Santa Monica continued to hit historic lows in 2008, a trend which SMPD Chief Tim Jackman credited to increased community involvement and an intense focus on connecting the homeless population with social service agencies.

Part 1 crimes, which include rapes, murders and assaults, were down 7 percent compared to 2007, according to figures released by the SMPD.

Leading the overall decline in serious crime was a 56 percent drop in arsons, with seven reported in 2008 compared to 16 the year prior. That was followed by a 30 percent drop in rapes, with 21 being reported in 2008 compared to 30 in 2007.

While on the rise in 2009, auto thefts were down in ‘08 by 26 percent, with 243 reports compared to 327 in ‘07.

“We are doing very well,” Jackman said during an interview Tuesday in his office at the Public Safety Facility. “As a matter of fact, we are so far below reported crime 50 years ago it is almost incredible.”

Santa Monica is not alone. Throughout the nation and in the region, crime has steadily decreased over the last few years, with Los Angeles experiencing a 2.5 percent drop in violent crimes in 2008. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reported a 6 percent drop in such crimes through the end of November 2008.

“This is really a community effort,” Jackman said of the reduction locally. “Police do have an effect on crime and we have made some changes in our model that have paid some dividends, but it is really the partnerships that we have built that have made a difference. We work well with the community and that shows with positive results.”

That being said, Jackman and others familiar with crime statistics said the numbers do not tell the whole story.

“What you are seeing in Santa Monica is a reduction in stats, not necessarily a reduction in crime,” said Malcolm Klein, the former director of the Social Science Research Institute at the University of Southern California who specializes in gangs.

Many crimes are not reported, Klein said, which skews overall statistics.

Jackman agrees, yet feels the stats do provide some insight into what is happening on the streets and in the region. Instead of looking at exact numbers, Jackman prefers to identify a range to see if certain crimes are occurring at or around what is the norm based on decades of data. While it may seem shocking to see homicides jump 33 percent in ‘08, looking closely at the stats shows that the increase isn’t as significant as it initially looks given the small number of murders in Santa Monica.

In ‘08 there were four homicides compared with three in 2007. Jackman said both numbers are within the norm for Santa Monica, which has experienced a high of 10 to 12 homicides a year to a low of one or two.

Jackman believes the dip in Part 1 crime has a lot to do with connecting the homeless to services, getting them off the streets where they are often easy targets.

He also believes the new community policing model instituted in January of ‘08, where each beat is assigned a Neighborhood Resource Officer or mini-sheriff, has led to more reporting of crimes, more collaboration with residents, and in turn, more arrests.

Targeting the homeless is key, Jackman said, because they represent 40 to 50 percent of arrests made. They are also responsible for a higher level of violent crimes. For example, if two men get into an argument over a bottle of booze and one man uses a stick to attack the other, the result is an assault with a deadly weapon and robbery, two serious offenses.

Jackman believes the decrease in the homeless population (8 percent according to the citywide count conducted in January) has led to a decrease in crime. With a large percentage of the homeless population suffering from mental illness, addiction or both, Jackman said it is crucial to get them off the streets where they are often victims.

“You have to look at the homeless population in two ways,” the chief said. “You have people who need help and those who contribute to the crime problem … predatory people who are trying to be invisible, parolees, those on probation, sex offenders.”

Jackman last year hired Ron Hooks of West Coast Care to reach out to the homeless along with the SMPD’s Homeless Liaison Program team and city staff in the Human Services Division. Hooks’ contract is for $250,000 and ends this month. Jackman said he will “definitely” bring Hooks and his team back. Jackman praised the work of Hooks, his officers, city staff and social service providers.

When it comes to the Neighborhood Resource Officers, Jackman pointed to Artis Williams, who covers the Sunset Park beat. There were a string of burglaries during August of last year that targeted the homes of Sunset Park residents. Working with the neighborhood group Friends of Sunset Park, Williams was able to identify what time of day the majority of burglaries were occurring and assign officers to hot spots. Neighbors also began looking out for one another and seemed no longer hesitant to contact police if they saw a suspicious person milling about.

“It’s all about building better relationships with the community,” Williams said. “In the past residents may have seen something but didn’t think they should bother the police with it or didn’t know who to talk to. Some may have been intimidated. But now they have a direct line of contact where they can call or e-mail me.”

Zina Josephs, president of Friends of Sunset Park, said the NRO program has been a big help.

“We can phone or e-mail our NRO … and know that we will be treated with respect, that he will not dismiss our concerns, and that his focus is specifically on our neighborhood,” Josephs said.

“Learning to trust our own instincts and feeling comfortable in contacting the police immediately can make all the difference in keeping our neighborhood safe,” she added. “There’s still stuff going on, auto burglaries, etc., but it feels like more of a partnership between the community and the police than before the NRO program was put in place by Chief Jackman.”

Klein said the key to good community policing is knowing the neighborhoods intimately. While meeting with Jackman and some of the officers when the chief first arrived in Santa Monica, Klein said he was impressed with how familiar many officers were with the gang problem in the Pico Neighborhood.

The Sunset Park burglaries picked up in August and within a few weeks several suspects were arrested, Williams said.

By the numbers

When looking at the stats closely, it is clear that not all crime went down. Larcenies remained relatively the same, with just a slight increase in 2008. There were 2,104 larcenies reported in ‘08 compared to 2,099 in ‘07. The majority were between $50-$200. Most involved pickpockets and thefts from autos. Shoplifting increased by 16 percent while bicycle thefts jumped 40 percent.

In the aggravated assaults category, there were 293 incidents reported last year compared to 328 in ‘07 for a drop of 11 percent. Robberies were down 8 percent, with 218 reported in ‘08. Burglaries were down by 18 percent. The use of a firearm when committing an assault or robbery were also down considerably, 42 percent and 38 percent respectively.

Overall, crime continues to decline in ‘09, Jackman said, but he has seen a spike in auto burglaries and thefts over the last few months, particularly around the Third Street Promenade between California and Colorado avenues. The Ocean Park neighborhood has also seen a spike.

Jackman urges drivers to remove all valuables from their cars, including laptops, navigation devices and iPods, which are easy to steal.

kevinh@smdp.com