By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
In a town with just over 200 violent crimes last year, a 13% increase needs perspective.
That’s according to Police Chief Laura Farinella, who outlined Laguna Beach’s 2015-2016 crime statistics in her 2016 biennial crime report delivered Thursday at the Laguna Beach Woman’s Club. Farinella says the increase adds up to four more sexual assaults, seven additional robberies and 15 more simple assaults in Laguna in 2016 over the previous year. Aggravated assaults decreased to 25 last year compared to 28 in 2015.
“Crime is up 13%, but there has to be context added to that,” Farinella said. “That equates to 23 crimes. You have to be careful to understand what those numbers mean. Does that mean we have more work to do, some community outreach to educate? Absolutely.”
Farinella’s report also shows property crimes are up 11%. Within property crimes, burglaries and larcenies rose most significantly. There were 31 more larcenies year over last, with almost half of all larceny crimes being thefts from parked vehicles. There were 23 additional burglaries in 2016 compared to 2015, with 31% of all residential burglaries a result of open or unsecured garages.
“Most of our property crime and vehicle thefts are people that left their vehicle unlocked,” said Captain Jason Kravetz. “We hear a lot, ‘this is Laguna.’ Well, crime does happen here. “
Though there were 95 stolen cars recovered in Laguna Beach over the last year, 95% of those were initially reported as stolen from other cities. The city has three license plate readers at the three entrance and exit points, which alert police to the presence of stolen vehicle. Still, Kravetz says residents need to be vigilant.
“Lock your cars, take your keys out, and we will go down in crime,” Kravetz said.
Farinella’s report showed progress in the decrease of drunk driving arrests. DUIs are down 9% in Laguna Beach, 330 in 2016. That’s an even more significant drop when compared with 623 drunk driving arrests made just five years ago in 2012.
Farinella credits the decrease to the department’s addition of a downtown foot beat, a “Know Your Limits” campaign aimed at patrons and better ties to Laguna’s 130 on- and off-sale drinking establishments.
“Having that direct foot beat officer communicating with our bars, shops and restaurants, that is dropping it down significantly,” Farinella said.
The police department has also partnered with Uber to create passenger loading zones near Skyloft and the Sandpiper bars to alleviate congestion on Coast Highway and promote ridesharing and sober rides home, another program Farinella attributes to the decrease.
“If officers see someone who has had too much to drink and about to get in the car, they have the ability to take an Uber card, put them in the car and get them home safely,” said Lt. Joe Torres. “Before the only alternative was to take them to jail.”
After her hiring in 2015, Farinella mapped out a strategic plan that included two beach patrol officers. The recent passing of Measure LL, a hike in the bed tax, will help pay for an additional two, who have recently been hired and are now on the job. Farinella says the four full-time beach patrol officers will join six part-time officers to better patrol South Laguna beaches. Residents have complained about an increase in negative tourist impacts.
“I am going to go back to the South Laguna Civic Association and ask if they notice a difference,” Farinella said. “Nuisance complaints and quality of life; that is my measure of success.”
She says she will review data in October to see if the additional manpower has worked, stressing that an increased presence in South Laguna is a priority for her and the department.
“I know that statistics-wise we are already writing more tickets than last year, but I don’t just want to write more tickets,” Farinella said. “I want to gain compliance and I want them to have a better quality of life.”
The department’s report stressed a continued focus on the city’s homeless population, first dedicating an officer to the homeless in 2008. Since then, other cities are now coming to Laguna Beach for advice, Lt. Joe Torres said.
“We address quality of life issues and crime prevention through environmental design,” Torres said. “Something really simple such as putting more lighting in an area where homeless people are congregating, you put more lighting there, and people tend to go away.”
The department of 127 employees includes 52 sworn officers. In addition to the beach patrol, a maritime team patrols on the water, and teams use bikes and ATVs to patrol the nooks and crannies of a community with a seven-mile coastline.
Farinella says for a department of this size, and a tourist population that swells the city to a bustling 6 million every year, Laguna Beach remains a remarkably safe place to live.
“We are safer now than we were in 1992,” said Farinella. “We haven’t had a homicide in Laguna Beach since 2012.”
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