Serious crimes increased for several years before dropping last year.

Serious crime was down 16% last year in Santa Monica, local officials said this week.

After reaching a historically low level in 2014, the rate of Part 1 crimes, which include murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, theft, grand theft auto and arson, rose 29% between 2015 and 2018. But in 2019, 16% fewer Part 1 crimes were reported than in 2018.

Three people were murdered in 2019, a decrease from seven people in 2018. The number of rapes fell from 47 to 35.

Robbery was down 9% to 248 incidents, aggravated assault dropped 18% to 318 incidents, burglary declined 13% to 566 incidents and theft decreased 18% to 3,137 incidents.

Grand theft auto rose 5% to 249 incidents and arson increased 61% to 29 incidents.

A total of 4,585 crimes were reported last year — 86% of them property crimes — returning to a level slightly above the 4,243 crimes reported in 2015.

By 2014, Santa Monica had achieved a Part 1 crime rate that hadn’t been seen since the 1950s and 1960s, said City Manager Rick Cole.

In 2015, something changed — serious crime jumped 27% and kept rising in 2016, 2017 and 2018 by 6%, 12% and 9%, respectively. During the same period, the city’s homeless population increased by 29% from 2015 to 2018 to 957 individuals.

“It wasn’t a blip — we’re not trying to erase it, excuse it or say it didn’t happen,” Cole said. “But it was compounded by the fact that there were some very high profile incidents that made the TV news and were magnified and distorted by social media.”

In September 2017, Jacqueline Seabrooks retired after five years as police chief and Kenneth Semko became interim chief. Cole said Semko adopted a new strategy to reduce crime that focused on engaging with people experiencing homelessness, including connecting them to services. Regularly making contact with people on the streets helps officers identify which individuals tend to engage in criminal activity, Cole said.

“Not all homeless people are criminals and not all criminals are homeless, but there’s an overlap,” he said. “Nonviolent felons are being released from prison who can’t get a job and therefore can’t get housing. They’re lumped in with the homeless population — and they are homeless — but these are people with criminal records.”

Current police chief Cynthia Renaud was sworn in May 2018. She has since hired 20 new officers, bringing the department back up to its budgeted capacity, put more officers on street and mounted patrols and stationed security guards in the city’s public parking structures, which had become hotbeds for theft.

The department also deployed more foot patrol and undercover officers in problem areas and established a unit dedicated to tracking and responding to crime trends.

“We have more officers on the street doing old-fashioned police work than we’ve ever had,” Cole said. “They’re more visible than a squad car, which provides a level of perception both for people going about their business in a law-abiding way and those who are not.”

Cole said the perception of safety is often separate from crime statistics and varies from person to person. He said he understands how people of different ages, genders and life experiences might feel more or less safe in Santa Monica, but he thinks residents who paint the city as the most dangerous place in the world on social media only fuel hysteria and fear.

“The last time our society went through this — and it was driven by fear and the exploitation of fear — California became the capital of mass incarceration, and we concluded it was neither just nor cost-effective,” Cole said.

“We don’t want to tell people everything is fine … because that masks the realities of the meth epidemic, nonviolent felons the state has failed to get into productive lives and the epidemic of mental illness on the streets. Those are real problems that aren’t confined to the 8.3 square miles of Santa Monica, but we have a responsibility to acknowledge them and … figure out solutions.”