SANTA MARIA, Calif. - At the Chevron gas station on North Broadway at Donovan Road in Santa Maria, holdups were part of doing business at the busy intersection, up until recently.
"I've only been here two or three years, but at least twice that I know of", said one woman working behind the counter.
Just down North Broadway at the Red Eye liquor store, a former clerk was shot during an armed robbery just a few years ago, but current clerk Frank Aboud says he's had no problems with crime in the past year.
Santa Maria Police say overall crime against people and property are trending lower.
"For the calendar year 2013 the City of Santa Maria experienced a drop in three major categories, robberies, aggravated assaults and burglaries", Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin told reporters at a press briefing Wednesday morning near City Hall.
Chief Martin says there has been a slight increase in Part I crimes including homicide and rape since 2012.
"The average homicide rate in the United States for cities that have a population of 100,000 is four", Chief Martin said pointing to the most recent crime statistics on display during the briefing, "as you can see in 2012 there were two homicides in the city and then there were three in 2013, now that shows an ominous increase of 50 percent, but the reality is, the numbers speak for themselves."
"The next category is rapes, they increased from 23 in 2012 to 34 in 2013", Martin said, "we attribute the increase to more victims coming forward, we did not have a serial rapist in the city, and I wanted to take the opportunity to applaud the victim assistance groups here in the city who have an unwavering commitment to assist these victims and stand with them as they go through the court process."
Martin noted the drop in other Part I crimes.
"Robbery is a standard bell weather indicator of crime in any city", Martin told reporters, "I'm happy to report that we experienced a 15 percent decline in this area."
The biggest decline dating back to 2010 is in aggravated assaults.
"But in an atmosphere of full disclosure we were inappropriately categorizing all domestic violence incidents into this area", Martin said, "a simple battery should not be classified as an aggravated assault regardless of the domestic status of those involved, thus you will see a 37 percent drop."
Chief Martin says burglaries have also been falling in the city.
"Burglary is another property crime and is down 9 percent in the city, the city experienced approximately two burglaries each day", Martin says, "I would like to ask the public to report more suspicious activity that would assist us in this area."
"Many times the officers do go to the scene, we canvas the neighborhood, and many times residents will come forward and say they did see something but they didn't want to bother us", Martin said, "I'm here to tell you that you are not bothering us by reporting suspicious activity."
By far, the biggest increase in property crime is motor vehicle theft, up more than 80 percent from 2012.
"The most common vehicle stolen in Santa Maria is a Honda, late or mid 90's or forward, unfortunately its way too high for the City of Santa Maria", Martin said, "700 plus vehicles, we had five vehicles stolen last Friday alone, and we had another half dozen or so just over the past weekend. We do recover a significant amount of the vehicles inside our city or in the county area around us but this number is simply too high."
"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 school, or better yet utilizing a steering wheel lock", Martin said, "these are opportunistic thefts, and this Part 1 crime skews our overall numbers and causes our standards in Santa Maria to be simply higher."
Chief Martin says a 44% jump in arson in 2013 is attributed to the arson attack on the Town Center Inn motel in downtown Santa Maria that made dozens of people homeless.
Martin points out there have been no homicides in Santa Maria for the first six months of 2014 and a beefed-up Gang Suppression Unit continues to target and arrest gang leaders in the city.
"As Mayor I am really proud to hear what the statistics are here in Santa Maria", said Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino at the press briefing, "with our new budget we are increasing our police department."
"I want to thank the people of Santa Maria for Measure U", Patino said about the voter-approved sales tax incease that is funding public safety agencies, "we will now have more men on our Gang Suppression Team, we will have more traffic cops,
its unbelievable the new men and women who have come onto the police force and the background that they have. We have a plan here with our new police chief, we are moving forward and we are moving forward in a very positive way."
Chief Martin says the increase in opportunistic thefts make the City of Santa Maria high in Part 1 crimes, "but you have to ask yourself, would you rather be in a city that has high property crimes and low homicides, or a significant number of homicides and a lower number of property crimes, and I think we all know the answer to that."
Some local residents were surprised to hear about the drop in crime.
"It hasn't changed for me", says Stephanie Cox, "I don't feel any less safe or any more safe."
"Interesting, it seems like the opposite around here", adds Chris Pacheco, "people are getting more violent over petty things, I guess in my mind I feel like I'm safe but I guess I'm still paranoid going anywhere at night."
The two women working the counter at the Chevron at Broadway and Donovan said they do feel safer than a year ago, "I would have to say yes", the unidentified woman said.
Santa Maria Police have posted the complete breakdown of crime statistics between 2010 and 2013 on its website: http://www.cityofsantamaria.org/3051-CrimeStatistics.shtml