I don’t think anyone really knows why they change,” Interim Morro Bay Police Chief Larry Dodd said, matter-of-factly.
He’s only been on the job for two months after being called out of retirement to temporarily take the spot of the city’s previous chief, who left to take a job in Pacific Grove. Prior to serving in Morro Bay, Dodd worked as interim chief in cities like Hollister, Novato, Clearlake, and Fairfield.
Before that, he served as chief of the Los Gatos/Monte Sereno Police Department for more than a decade.
And despite all that experience, he—like most other area police chiefs—isn’t exactly sure why crime statistics fluctuate.
“There’s an ebb and flow from year to year,” Todd said.
SLO County residents can see that ebb and flow for themselves, thanks to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report. The yearly report compiles statistics on certain crimes from more than 18,000 city, county, and university law enforcement agencies across the nation. This month the FBI released statistics for the 2015 calendar year, including data from every major law enforcement agency in SLO County. That includes police departments from the county’s seven cities, as well as crime data from the SLO County Sheriff’s Office and the police departments at Cal Poly and Cuesta College.
The statistics in SLO County show that violent crime decreased slightly from 2014 to 2015, while non-violent property crime increased.
When it comes to the total number of violent crimes—classified by the report as murder, rape, aggravated assault, and robbery—seven of the 10 SLO County law enforcement agencies saw a decrease or no change at all in 2015 from the previous year.
At the same time, eight of those same 10 agencies saw an increase in overall property crimes, which the FBI classifies as the total number of burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle thefts. The same data shows that of the three different property crimes included in the total number, every agency but the Cal Poly and Cuesta police departments saw some rise in larceny, or theft, from 2014 to 2015. In total, the 10 SLO County agencies reported a total of 6,514 property crimes in 2015, up from 5,426 in 2014.
It was a similar story in Grover Beach. In May, the Grover Beach Police Department released its own 2015 annual report, which noted a 7 percent increase in property crime, a 20 percent increase in petty thefts, and 71 percent increase in auto thefts.
Grover Beach Police Chief John Peters has some ideas when it comes to the reason for the bump in property crime his city is seeing. He, along with several other top cops at various Central Coast law enforcement agencies, place some of the blame at the feet of California’s voter-approved prison realignment law commonly known as Proposition 47.
Approved by the state’s voters in 2014, Proposition 47 reduced certain drug possession felonies to misdemeanors and required misdemeanor sentencing for petty theft, receiving stolen property, and passing bad checks worth $950 or less. Proponents of criminal justice reform said the measure would ease prison overcrowding and roll back some of the effects of the War on Drugs, which put millions of low-level drug offenders behind bars. But many of the state’s law enforcement officials roundly opposed the measure, warning it would come with unintended impacts.
Peters said that the proposition has put more non-violent drug offenders on the streets and that those same offenders were likely to participate in theft and other property crimes.
“It’s kind of a revolving door of suspects being caught for narcotics crimes and also property crimes,” Peters told New Times. “The two seem to go hand and hand.”
Todd also admitted that Proposition 47 may be impacting the crime statistics in Morro Bay.
“Certainly there are more people being released out into the street as a result of that legislation,” Todd said. “And those people are less violent criminals, so that may play a role.”
Todd and Peters are far from the only SLO County lawmen casting a critical eye on Proposition 47. Both SLO County District Attorney Dan Dow and Sheriff Ian Parkinson asked voters not to approve the measure in 2014.
But not everyone is convinced of the proposition’s harm. A research report released in September by the nonprofit Center on Juvenile Criminal Justice asserted that statewide data didn’t back up any correlation between the number of offenders released from county jails under Proposition 47 and changes in the crime rate.
“The data show that reductions in a county’s facility population do not correspond with similar increases in its violent or property crime rates,” the report stated. “In fact, counties with similar reductions in their facility populations typically experienced widely varying crime trends.”
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.