The number of stolen vehicles in the city of Santa Maria rose dramatically in 2013 over the previous year, and the city’s police chief says careless owners are to blame for the spike.
Chief Ralph Martin of the Santa Maria Police Department on Wednesday released the 2013 crime statistics covering eight major categories, divided into crimes against people and crimes against property. Crime dropped in three major categories in the city, but the number of forcible rapes and vehicle thefts rose dramatically in 2013.
Overall, the number of Part 1 crimes rose 10 percent in 2013 over the previous year, but much of that increase can be attributed to a spike in vehicle thefts, he added.
The number of stolen vehicles rose 83 percent, Martin said, with 730 in 2013 — “unfortunately, way too high for the city of Santa Maria.”
In 2012, 399 vehicles were reported as stolen from the city.
“We do recover a significant amount of vehicles inside our city or well within the county area around us, but this number is simply too high,” Martin said.
The chief called on residents to stop being careless and to take some simple precautions to stem the number of stolen vehicles in the city.
“This number would drop significantly if persons would quit leaving their cars open, running the engine and then leaving to go inside a market or a school, or better yet, utilizing a steering wheel lock,” Martin said. “These are opportunistic thefts and this Part One crime skews our overall numbers and causes our standard in Santa Maria to be simply higher.”
One day last week, five vehicles were reported stolen, the chief said.
Honda is the city's top targeted vehicle, which also is popular among thieves in other communities, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
At last year’s National Night Out, police provided 300 “clubs” for locking steering wheels and intend to do that again Aug. 5.
Stolen vehicles can contribute to increased insurance rates. One-fourth of a typical comprehensive auto insurance premium goes to pay for auto theft claims, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
"There are several factors that go into determining auto rates. We use our claim payments to evaluate the cost of insuring specific makes and models of vehicles. So, to the extent we make fewer theft claim payments for a specific make and model of vehicle, the cost of the comprehensive coverage (which includes coverage for theft) for that vehicle is less,” said Jordi Ortega, spokesperson for State Farm.
In 2013, Santa Maria had three homicides, with two reported in 2012.
“That shows an ominous increase of fifty percent but the reality is the numbers speak for themselves,” Martin said.
The average homicide rate in the United States is four for a population of 100,000, he said.
Last year’s homicide rate is lower than than the seven reported in 2011 or nine in 2008, when a man shot four people at Black Road Auto on the western edge of the city.
Another crime category that saw an increase last year in Santa Maria is forcible rapes. Thirty-four forcible rapes were reported in 2013, compared to 23 for the previous year.
“We attribute the increase to more victims coming forward,” Martin said. “We did not have a serial rapist in the city.”
Martin applauded victim’s assistance groups for providing support as the cases goes through the court process.
The number of arson cases increased 44 percent, but three of them are directly attributed to Amos Andrews who was arrested and pleaded guilty to starting the Town Center Inn fire. In 2013, the city reported 13 arson fires, compared with nine in 2012.
Last year, Santa Maria saw a decrease in robberies, aggravated assaults and burglaries, Martin said.
The 123 robberies reported in 2013 was down from 145 in 2012.
“Robbery is a standard bell-weather indicator of crime in any city and I’m happy to report that we’ve experienced a 15 percent decline in this area,” Martin said.
Aggravated assaults dropped 37 percent, a number that is partially explained by the city realizing that all domestic violence assaults — even those deemed a simple battery — had improperly been reported under this category. Even so, the city still saw fewer aggravated assaults, according to Martin.
And, 647 burglaries occurred in 2013, 9 percent fewer than in 2012. That means Santa Maria had about two burglaries each day.
Martin called on the public to report any suspicious activity to police.
“Many times the officers do go to the scene and canvas the neighborhood, and many times residents will come forward and say they did see something, but they didn’t want to bother us. I”m here to tell you that you’re not bothering us by reporting suspicious activity,” Martin added.
Detective Paul Van Meel noted that victims can help by not just reporting a crime but also avoiding contaminating the scene of a burglary.
“We have a crime lab that’s being run by a very well-experienced crime technician and we are making a lot of cases off latent fingerprints, DNA, things like that,” Van Meel said. “On a very regular basis, we’re making those kinds of cases.”
The city also saw an 18 percent increase in the larceny, or grand theft, category, Martin added. But that boost isn’t unusual when compared to other cities, Martin said.
Santa Maria is the only city in Santa Barbara County with a population over 100,000 and included on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, where it’s compared to larger cities such as Los Angeles, Ventura, Long Beach and Oxnard, the chief said.
“Overall, in the city of Santa Maria we’re experiencing a continual drop in crime in various areas,” Martin said, adding the city hasn’t had any homicides reported for the first six months of 2014.
Mayor Alice Patino said the city has provided more resources for law enforcement in the new budget with many new hires.
“As mayor of the city of Santa Maria I’m really proud to hear what the statistics are here in Santa Maria,” she said.
She also expressed appreciation that voters in 2012 approved Measure U, a quarter-percent sales tax hike to raise funds for police and fire services. This will boost number of gang enforcement and motorcycle officers, among others.
“We’re moving forward in a very positive way,” she added.