South County crime: How Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Pismo Beach compare

The Grover Beach police station on Rockaway Avenue.
The Grover Beach police station on Rockaway Avenue.

South San Luis Obispo County cities experienced a drop in reports of violent crime last year while property crimes appear to be on the rise, according to each police department and the county Sheriff’s Office.

Current and historical statistics also show that, together, crimes reported in the cities of Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Pismo Beach have equaled roughly 17 percent of the county’s total reported crimes since 2004. The three cities make up approximately 14 percent of the county’s estimated 2014 population.

The numbers only reflect reports of crimes — homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft and vehicle theft — not whether the report resulted in a criminal conviction.

Every year, local law enforcement agencies report their respective raw data to the California Department of Justice and the FBI, which review the information and may accept or reject certain numbers.

The California Attorney General’s Office and the FBI publish those numbers in their annual crime reports. Crime statistics are considered preliminary until accepted by the state and federal government.

Data from the three police departments for 2014 have been submitted and will be formalized in the reports, due out in September. Because those numbers are not official yet, comparisons to national rates refer to 2013 rates calculated by the FBI.

Arroyo Grande

A look at Arroyo Grande’s data since 2004 reveals that a drop in violent crime across the city coincides with a general increase in property crimes.

Though crimes of homicide, rape and theft increased slightly in 2014, the rates of those crimes per 10,000 residents are lower than the national per capita rate in cities of similar populations.

Last year, the city recorded six rapes, three robberies, 22 aggravated assaults, 140 burglaries, 299 thefts and 30 vehicle thefts.

Reflected in those numbers is one assault that is now being prosecuted as a homicide after the alleged victim later died of injuries he suffered outside an Arroyo Grande bar in October. Prosecutors did not file the homicide charge until after the city’s numbers were submitted.

Burglary has increased since 2004, with 2014 reaching nearly double the number of reported burglaries in 2010. That figure is well above the national crime rate for similar cities, with 78.1 burglaries reported per 10,000 residents compared with 53.7 nationwide.

Vehicle thefts are on a six-year increase, almost doubling since 2009 and bringing last year’s number higher than the 2013 national per capita rate.

Police Chief Steve Annibali attributed the trends to the effects of state prison realignment, passed in 2011, that sends people convicted of nonviolent, low-level crimes to serve terms in county jails instead of state prison and assigns them to county probation supervision instead of state parole.

Proposition 47 also played a role in numbers recorded near the end of the year, Annibali said. The state ballot initiative, which was law for only the last two months of 2014, reclassified certain property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

People caught in possession of serious drugs — now a misdemeanor as long as they’re not selling it — and people committing property crimes to feed an addiction are typically cited or briefly booked and then released and in some cases not required to seek treatment.

He added that while reports of theft increased slightly last year, the department also made arrests in two serial burglary cases, recovering in one case enough stolen property to require the Police Department to rent a storage unit to process and return it.

“Sometimes if you take a single person off the streets, you can cut your numbers way down,” Annibali said.

The number of violent crimes reported last year is similar to 2013, though the rates per 10,000 residents fall below national rates.

Aggravated assaults — incidents between at least two people that result in a moderate to serious injury to at least one party — have increased a bit since 2009, save for a spike in 2012 that Annibali described as a statistical oddity.

He noted that it’s important to analyze crime statistics but said that one reported crime can drastically affect a crime rate in small cities.

“If you’re a small city, you have to be cautious of the stats because they can at first look alarming when in reality the numbers are actually pretty low,” he said. “Arroyo Grande is and will continue to be a very safe city to live in.”

Grover Beach

Grover Beach, one of the county’s least populous cities, saw mixed results last year with both increases and decreases in different types of violent and property crime.

The city reported five rapes, three robberies, 43 aggravated assaults, 95 burglaries, 208 thefts and 21 vehicle thefts. No homicides were reported.

Though the number of reported rapes has varied widely each year since 2004, the crime spiked in 2011 and 2013 and last year’s rate per 10,000 residents slightly exceeded the national per capita rate.

Police Chief John Peters said he believes those numbers reflect efforts by community outreach group RISE, formerly the Sexual Assault Recovery and Prevention Center and the North County Women’s Shelter and Resource Center, and the county’s Victim Witness Program in helping victims report the crimes.

“These programs have really picked up the pace since 2012, and hopefully we are being successful letting the victims know that there is support for them and we are here to help them,” Peters wrote in an email.

Robberies have also fluctuated since 2004 but were below the 2013 national rate last year. Aggravated assaults, however, jumped last year to nearly twice the 2013 national crime rate.

Peters said those numbers are concerning and the department has not identified any reason for the increase. He noted that 75 percent of those cases were solved and that the city has seen only three serious assaults in the first six months of 2015.

“So it does ebb and flow,” Peters said.

Like in other South County cities, property crime remains a problem in Grover Beach.

Burglaries have increased a little in the last four years, and last year’s rate is well over the national rate for similar cities.

Peters said most of those burglaries were shoplifting. Until November, people who were caught entering a business with the intent to commit a theft could be charged with burglary. He said those numbers will likely decrease because of Proposition 47, which prevents prosecutors from charging shoplifters with burglary except in extreme cases. Those crimes are now recorded as thefts.

After declining every year since 2010, the number of theft reports spiked last year, yet still fall below the national average for 2013. In general, reports of thefts have trended downward over the last 10 years, but Proposition 47 will likely change that as instances of shoplifting continue to rise, Peters said.

While shoplifting incidents rose from 48 to 56 in 2014, the city has already recorded 35 in the first six months of 2015, he said.

“Our businesses have tough decisions to make because they need to be vigilant in securing their products, but at the same time be an open marketplace that is attractive to customers. This is a delicate balance that thieves look to take advantage of,” Peters wrote.

Vehicle theft, though it has varied year by year, declined by about a third last year but remains just over the 2013 national per capita crime rate with 15.6 car thefts per 10,000 residents.

Peters said, overall, crimes have fallen by 20 percent in the last 10 years.

“Even though the numbers are higher in some categories, that can be attributed, in part, to proactive patrols and great community involvement in reporting crimes,” he said.

Pismo Beach

With the smallest population of any city in the county — an estimated 7,931 people in 2014 — and a large population of nonresident visitors, Pismo Beach has for the last 10 years seen numbers of reported crimes more in line with those of Arroyo Grande, which has more than twice its residents.

Pismo Beach was the only city in the county to match or exceed the national per capita crime rate in every category but homicide and rape.

Last year, it recorded two rapes, eight robberies, 17 aggravated assaults, 162 burglaries, 214 thefts and 15 vehicle thefts. No homicides were recorded.

Police Chief Jake Miller said though the city’s resident population is low, its service population is far larger, with the tourism and hospitality industries catering to an additional 20,000 people on any given summer weekend, he said, and between 50,000 and 70,000 on holiday weekends.

Crimes involving those nonresidents skew the per capita crime rate, he said.

While the city hasn’t seen a homicide since 2007 and the number of reported rapes in the last 10 years has mostly stayed below the national per capita rate, aggravated assaults varied each year but last year exceeded the 2013 national rate. Robberies have picked up slightly in recent years and last year were more than double the national rate.

Miller said the department places a high priority on solving those violent crimes quickly because of the transient population.

“When you get a crime like that, you’ve got to jump on it right away because (the perpetrators) aren’t going to be here in a week,” Miller said. “We’ve found ourselves running around the state to catch these guys, and that takes officers off the street.”

Property crimes are up across the board. Burglaries have tripled since 2007, with last year’s numbers triple the 2013 national rate for cities under 10,000 people.

Vehicle thefts vary but generally remain above the national rate.

Thefts are also consistently above the national rate but have generally trended downward since 2004, despite a spike last year.

Miller, who strongly believes in regularly analyzing crime data, said the department tries to be proactive with property crimes and will set up a bait car or property theft sting, for example, when data indicates a hot spot for criminal activity.

Generally speaking, Miller said his department’s workload is up and he expects that to continue through 2015 due to the combination of realignment and Proposition 47.

“Over the last couple of decades there’s been a reduction in the more violent crimes. It feels like it’s getting better, feels safer,” Miller said. “One thing that enhances tourism is people have to feel safe.”