Crime stats climb

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

In keeping with the challenges criminal justice officials attribute to continuing fallout of AB 109 — the state legislature’s “realignment” mandate to close state prisons, which effectively squeezed convicted criminals back out onto the streets by the thousands in 2011 — Ridgecrest Police Chief Ron Strand gave a report to the City Council that showed an increase in local crime.

“The next couple of years are going to be very challenging,” said Strand. “My view is that we have not hit the high water mark yet on the effects of AB 109.

“It’s only going to get worse. It’s going to get more violent.” He supported that by citing a tripling of violent encounters between suspects and officers, as well as the Oct. 25 shooting spree that left two dead and sent shock waves through the community.

“We seem to be running into more individuals who are willing to be aggressive and violent toward us than we have for some time,” said Strand.

“But our overall goal is still to maintain the safety of those living in and visiting the city of Ridgecrest.”

Even in the face of such events, he said, he still considers Ridgecrest a safe community. “And we are doing everything we can to maintain that.”

Strand told the council that the most effective marker to track trends is through the reported incidence of Part-1 crimes — the most serious offenses — murders, rapes, robberies, arson and aggravated assault.

His presentation included slides that showed the annual numbers reported from 2006 on. From 2006 to 2012, those numbers declined from 1,160 to 899 — a 17-percent decrease. But in 2012 the RPD saw a 10-percent increase to 990. Although 2013 data is still incomplete, Strand said Part-1 crimes have increased another 4 percent this year.

Those numbers are still significantly below the Kern County average, where the average increase has been reported to be as high as 58 percent in the Tehachapi area.

Last year also showed a significant increase in thefts and burglaries, though Strand noted that those numbers each declined about 5 percent in 2013.

The most significant challenges, said Strand, are in crimes against persons. As of October, aggravated assaults had increased 61 percent.

Strand noted that AB 109 is driving this trend in several ways, including revolving-door incarcerations, a change in sentencing guidelines, limited rehabilitated services and an increase in sustained drug use.

“When the state placed responsibility for incarceration on counties, we noticed an overcrowding in our jails. That means if someone comes in, someone has to go out … and AB 109 sped that up considerably.” He cited a recent report from Lisa Green in the Kern County District Attorney’s office, who said that a four-year sentence can now yield as little as four weeks time served.

Strand said that sentencing guidelines have been watered down to accommodate for the lack of capacity, so that only the offenders convicted of the most serious crimes serve time. That in turn has reduced the justice system’s ability to “dry out” drug addicts through incarceration. “In all of this, we’ve seen in our community an increase in the number of sustained drug users, and those people are using for longer.”

With rehabilitative services concentrated in Bakersfield — more than 100 miles away from local users — results from those services are simply not getting to the local populace.

When realignment was first announced, “some of us started looking at what we could do to maintain safety in the face of what’s coming our way.”

Strand said first and foremost is maintaining an adequate police force, which successful passage of Measure L has helped make possible.

He said that a successful Teen Court program has also allowed officers early intervention with juvenile offenders. One metric of that success is a decline in documented youth drug abuse from 500 to about 180 since the program’s relaunch.

Strand said Kern County will fund a juvenile substance-abuse program, which would bolster the early-intervention progress.

RPD has been successful in engaging the public via social media to help solve crime. The department has been sharing information with other agencies to more successfully track known felons.

Ways the public can help, he said, is by deterring crime attempts by securing personal property, as well as by reporting suspicious activity.

Councilwoman Lori Acton noted that the California City prison facility was in line for an increase in capacity to the tune of 2,200 beds. She also asked where Strand was seeing spikes in drug use.

He said that methamphetamine continues to be a significant problem, and that for a period of time RPD was also seeing use of vicodin, oxycontin and heroin as emerging issues. “And where there is a profit in drugs, there will be people who want to control it through violence.”

Councilman Steven Morgan said he hopes Strand’s presentation will be articulated for the public “because, unfortunately, in our community there are individuals who think that not enough is being done. But they’re not understanding what is being done and how successful we are being.”

He also encouraged increased involvement from the public.

“What I’m talking about are things that the city has offered and begged and pleaded for such as neighborhood watch, PACT [Police and Community Together], being involved in your local government with your police department to put eyes on the street and making sure if there is anything suspect going on, that your city is notified.

“One thing the chief said rings absolutely true — we’re watching them. We as a public can do the same thing and we can be more efficient and more helpful to our entire community if we take the time to get involved.”

Morgan said he asked Strand for the update following an argument he had with a constituent on Facebook. “One individual gave every argument under the book why he couldn’t help, and I didn’t let him off the hook. I hammered him every time,” he said.

“If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. If we don’t help ourselves now, we are going to have worse problems. Get involved.”

Story First Published: 2013-12-11