Homeowners with Ring security systems and the alerts on their smartphones are familiar with seeing neighbor reports of stolen packages, forced-entry burglaries or even questions about loud popping sounds — “Were those gunshots?” someone might post to the notifications. Crime, more than ever, is on people’s minds and, according to Capt. Justin Diez of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Staton, it’s changing.
Diez spoke with business leaders on Tuesday during a Valley Industry Association luncheon at Valencia’s Hyatt Regency about trends, issues and solutions as they relate to public safety in the SCV.
VIA, the business networking group, hadn’t hosted an in-person luncheon since December due to COVID-19, according to the organization’s CEO and President Kathy Norris. This event was VIA’s first, she said, and business leaders, City Council members and representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, Assemblywoman Suzette Martinez Valladares, R-Santa Clarita, and others came together Tuesday to listen to and later dialogue with Diez about crime in the area.
According to Diez, crime has actually gone down here in the last two years, but it’s different and a growing concern.
“So, 2020 — let’s talk about crime in Santa Clarita,” Diez said to his group of attentive listeners with skin in the game, as they have businesses in the area. “The pandemic started, and what happened? Well, the state of California said — in good intention, which I believe, of course — ‘We’ve got all these jails, we’ve got all these prisons, we want to empty them out. Not literally empty them out, but we want to get some of the inmates out because of coronavirus.’”
Diez then described the COVID-19 emergency bail schedule, which set bail at $0 for most of those arrested — but not yet tried — for misdemeanors and lower-level felonies.
In a vandalism case, for example, Diez said his deputies would make an arrest, fingerprint the person and, if there were no warrants, release that person in a matter of about five to six hours with a court date set for four months later.
“So, what are you going to do over four months?” Diez asked listeners, having them put themselves in the shoes of the criminal.
Someone shouted out, “Do it again,” to which Diez replied, “Exactly. And that’s our problem.”
However, regardless of the results of this emergency bail schedule, Diez said he told his deputies to continue making arrests, all the while tracking repeat offenders, some arrested five times, 13 times, even 15 times.
In an interview with The Signal following the event, Diez said that between March 17, 2020, and March 16, 2022, the SCV station’s most arrested person was picked up 32 times, not including that individual’s arrests in other jurisdictions, if any.
“During those two years, we made over 10,000 arrests,” Diez told The Signal. “Those repeat offenders, which was just over 1,100, have been arrested just over 3,850 times, accounting for nearly 40% of all our arrests for that same time period.”
Still, crime, as Diez previously stated, is lower in the SCV. Much of the decline began during the pandemic with more people working from home — residential burglaries are less likely to occur when people are home, Diez said. Additionally, crime was lower during the lockdown because many businesses were closed.
Yet, the Santa Clarita station had its most arrests in 2020, he said. That’s because the station was and continues to focus on what Diez called “proactive policing.”
Diez talked about two types of arrests, the first being those made after a crime’s been committed, the second being those where an officer might, for example, pull over a motorist for a traffic violation who then learns the individual has a warrant, or a gun or drugs in the vehicle. These individuals are arrested before a crime’s occurred, he said.
Diez acknowledged that there’s a fine line between over-policing and violating a person’s rights.
“There are many police departments across this country that have stopped all proactive policing after George Floyd,” Diez added. “And their crime rates shot through the roof because they were worried about lawsuits.”
That coupled with L.A. County’s emergency bail schedule is problematic, he said. Making matters worse, some jurisdictions, Diez continued, like those in Ventura and Kern counties, have district attorneys who, unlike in Los Angeles County, will fully prosecute criminals.
“And unfortunately,” he said, “Ventura County’s right down the street, and Kern County’s not too far away, and (criminals) are coming down here and they’re victimizing us quite a bit.”
Diez said that since the early days of the pandemic, crime’s ticking up. Fortunately, he continued, Santa Clarita doesn’t have much violent crime. Property crimes and theft are big.
People, he said, have become bolder with shoplifting. They’ll walk into a store with a bag, throw stuff in it and walk out. Porch pirates are growing in numbers, too, he said. And grand theft auto is easier. If someone leaves keys in their vehicle, for example, a thief doesn’t have to find them. A key fob, which only has to be near the vehicle, allows anyone to simply press the ignition button to start the vehicle and drive off.
Diez recommends video cameras at homes and businesses. Make sure they work, he advised, and no dummy cams. Quite often, business owners will call law enforcement for break-ins, and camera equipment will either be phony or not working.
Masks for COVID-19 also make it difficult to identify criminals. Diez asked those in the room the hard question: “Is there going to be a point in your business, whatever kind of business you have — five employees, 200, 300 employees — where you’re going to say masks aren’t allowed?”
To some people in the crowd on Tuesday, Diez’s remarks were surprising, judging by their reactions. Others appeared to know what’s going on and remain concerned. Jason Parker, vice president and business banker at a Santa Clarita Wells Fargo, who was at the VIA event, said he was interested in knowing what’s going on in the community. A resident since 1983 and doing business here, he has, he added, a vested interest.
Also at the event, Kathleen Sturkey, executive director of the nonprofit LARC Ranch, said, “We now have to be a little more careful in this town.”