Violent crime remains at a 10-year low in Visalia

Visalia Police Department reports that violent crimes are down 22%, gang related violent crimes down 93% since 2008

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – Media reports of crime in Visalia are at an all-time high. Neighborhood watch apps and social media pages show there is more crime being committed in your neighborhood than ever before. Ask almost anyone, and they will tell you crime is getting worse in this city.

All of these statements are true, but none of them mean crime is on the upswing. Actually, it’s at a 10-year low, according to the Visalia Police Department.

Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar presented the department’s Annual Report to the Visalia City Council on May 6. In the last 10 years there has been a 22% reduction in violent crimes. Between 2008-2018, Visalia has seen a 93% reduction in gang-related violent crime. In addition to the Multi-Agency Gang Intervention Task Force, Salazar said gang was significantly reduced due to two major operations in the last decade. Operation Street Sweeper (2010) and Operation Red Sol (2015). VPD continues to operate its Special Enforcement Unit that focuses on gang enforcement, and continues to host the Tulare Area Regional Gang Enforcement Team (TARGET). TARGET is supervised by a Supervising Agent of the California Department of Justice and staffed by investigators from the Visalia Police Department, Tulare County Sheriff’s Office, and California Highway Patrol.

“For those of you who remember, in 2008 gang violence was very prevalent in our community,” Salazar said. “A lot of the credit goes to community groups that work with at-risk youth, such as the Visalia Unified School District and Pro-Youth.”

Chief Salazar cautioned the council not to assume that vigilant gang suppression is outdated. Since January 1, 2019, Salazar said the department’s anti-gang and narcotics units have already seized 50 firearms, mostly from known criminals and gang members who are prohibited from owning or carrying a gun. He also pointed out that many of the gang members the department has put away in the last decade are now eligible for early release under Proposition 57, a statewide initiative in 2016 that increases the number of inmates eligible for parole consideration if they were convicted of non-violent offenses.

“Seizing a lot of firearms certainly shows the potential [for gang crimes] is there,” Salazar said.

In 2017, the Department saw a slight increase of 1% in high priority crimes, identified by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report as homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft. In 2018, Visalia has seen a 7% decrease in high priority crimes with decreases in all but two categories; rape (32%) and assaults (1%). An analysis of Part 1 Crimes for the first quarter (Jan-Mar) of 2019 indicates a 13% decrease in Part 1 Crimes when compared to the first quarter of 2018, with increases in two categories robbery (15%) and auto theft (1%). A trend analysis of Part 1 Crimes for the City of Visalia reports a 27% decrease in Part 1 Crimes from 2008 (7,572 total) to 2018 (5,520 total).

“I can’t tell you how much we appreciate and respect you,” said Vice Mayor Link. “The fact that we are holding our own is commendable.”

The only significant increase in crime was in the category of rape. Salazar explained that the category was broadened in 2015 to include other types of sexual crimes. He also said these types of crimes are more frequently reported than in year’s past due to more awareness and less stigma.

“I don’t envy the VPD with the challenges they face out of Sacramento,” said Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen. “I think we set the standard.”

Auto theft is down 25% in the last decade. Last year alone saw a 12% reduction in auto theft and is on pace to be 13% lower this year. Several strategies have been employed to address auto theft, the most effective being the continued partnerships through the Tulare Reduce Auto Theft Task Force (TRATT), which is comprised of investigators from the Visalia Police Department, California Highway Patrol, Porterville Police Department, Tulare County Sheriff’s Office, Tulare County District Attorney’s Office, and the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Robberies were down 4% last year but were on pace to be up 15% this year. That projection should change, Salazar said, following the arrest of two robbers in last month. On April 17, VPD arrested 21-year-old Joshua Del Villar and a 17-year-old Hispanic male juvenile after finding evidence linking them to two armed robberies earlier that night, one at Flyers Market on East Mineral King and another at the 7-Eleven on West Walnut Avenue. When officers arrived on scene the clerk said two masked individuals with a sawed-off shotgun entered the business and demanded money. The subjects took an undetermined amount of cash and fled on foot. While officers were at the business they heard dogs barking in the neighborhood to the south and started checking the area.

“Since that time, we have had not additional robberies,” Salazar said. “We believe these individuals may have been responsible for other robberies.”

VPD launched two major technology programs last year. In August 2018, VPD launched its body-worn camera program when 120 uniformed officers began wearing Axon Flex cameras. The body-worn camera program has a five-year cost of $815,000 that provides for the equipment, replacement equipment, and unlimited cloud storage of collected data and evidence. The project is funded through federal grant and Measure N funds. To date, the Department has captured 26,940 total pieces of video evidence and 10+ terabytes of digital storage has been used.

Salazar said a common misconception is that body-worn camera footage will catch officers in some sort of misconduct. But in the case of VPD, he said the opposite has been true, as most of the footage has helped dispute claims of officer abuse and misuse of authority.

“After Freguson [Missouri], it was thought that cameras would catch officers in the act of corruption and be a tool to keep them from doing wrong,” Salazar said in an interview after the meeting. “In our case so far, the body cameras have exonerated the actions of the officers.”

The department also launched its Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) program with the introduction of six drones that provide airborne support to police operations. Seven Department personnel completed FAA training and exams to obtain their FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot License that allowed them to operate 72 missions last year.

“The UAS have provided assistance to various units within the Department by providing an overhead view of active incident scenes, providing assistance in collecting evidence and processing of scenes, and in searching for suspects and lost or missing persons,” Salazar wrote.

This year, 2019, VPD will focus its efforts on traffic. By adding one position to its Traffic Unit last year, VPD issued 12% more citations, reduced collisions by 8%, and cut the number of fatal traffic accidents by more than half. From 2009 to 2013, the department investigated an average of 5.6 traffic fatalities per year. From 2015 to 2017, VPD investigated 14 traffic fatalities in each of those years. In 2018, the number of fatal collisions dropped to 6.

“No one likes getting a ticket but the goal is to reduce collisions,” Salazar said. “We try to focus on primary collision factors, such as unsafe speed and failing to stop at a red light.”

The department finished 2018 with 159 sworn officers but had 10 vacant officer positions. Salazar said recruiting officers is a challenge for every department in California because there are a limited number of people entering the field and small and mid-sized agencies are competing with major metropolitan agencies for recruits.

“Cities have to try and make benefit packages that are appealing because we aren’t just competing with Fresno and Clovis, we are competing with Los Angeles,” Salazar said.

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