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Our View: Calm winds of change, clouds on the horizon

Posted: March 19, 2010 4:42 p.m.
Updated: March 21, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Spring is in the air, and the winds of change are sweeping through the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station.

Hopefully they won't blow too strongly, because the captain has set a steady course that ought to be maintained.

Our crime rate is exceedingly low, leaving the downtown gendarmes with enough time on their hands to solve some cold cases that have been languishing on the books for decades.

Life in Santa Clarita, for all our petty bickering, is good.

It should come as no surprise that the higher-ups at Sheriff's Headquarters in Monterey Park noticed. They've plucked our captain from the deck and promoted him to commander.

Like a fleet admiral, he will oversee six other captains from his new post - albeit not his own replacement in Santa Clarita, Capt. Paul Becker.

We're sorry to see him go, but Jacques Anthony La Berge has earned his new stripes.

In three years at the mast in Santa Clarita, La Berge efficiently managed 220 sworn and civilian personnel. Focusing resources wherever the community needed them, he satisfied a whole stable of political bosses on both sides of the city-county line at a time when they were locked in a popularity contest over whose side was better.

Most noticeably, La Berge took a big bite out of our already low crime rate.

You've read that crime was down in the city last year and up slightly in the county - a statistically insignificant change from the year before. What you need to remember is that the year before, under La Berge's leadership, our valleywide crime rate fell approximately 15 percent.

The fact that La Berge was able to maintain that new lower standard during 2009, in spite of the type of rotten economy that typically generates more crime, is nothing short of a wonder.

You can do what you want with the statistics. The biggest indicator of La Berge's success in Santa Clarita is public opinion, and it's squarely on his side.

No, we didn't throw him any parades. Perhaps we should have. No, we didn't elect him mayor. We can't imagine he'd want the job.

You might not even recognize his name. Why should you?

If you had a bad experience with the cops in Santa Clarita, you would know his name.

It's the opposite here. Law-abiding Santa Clarita residents tend to have good experiences with our deputies. That is a reflection of La Berge's leadership.

They say one in three Santa Clarita residents is a cop, has a family member who is a cop or has a close friend who is a cop. We don't know if that's accurate, but it can be fairly said that we, perhaps more than most communities, recognize that our deputies put their lives on the line for us every day, and that they never know what the next hour - or minute - will bring.

We rejoice at their triumphs in keeping our criminals in check, and we grieve when we lose a Hagop "Jake" Kuredjian or a David March. It cuts us deeply and we never forget.

Paul Becker has giant shoes to fill.

He's off to a good start. Becker made captain in December and took command of the SCV Station first thing Monday morning.

But he's not new to the SCV. He has lived in Santa Clarita for 13 years, and lived in Agua Dulce before that - lending personal credence to the notion that cops like to live here even when they don't work here.

What's more, his wife is a Sheriff's Department lieutenant; she oversees the sheriff's academy. Both of his stepsons are sheriff's deputies at other stations. They all live here, too.

What strikes you immediately about our new captain is the diversity of his experience within the department. It's fun to think of him as the detective - the detective - on Catalina Island. But look closer and you'll see that his assignments have run the gamut.

He investigated gang crime at Carson and Lakewood and elsewhere. He came up with some creative solutions for vandalism (i.e., tagging) on MTA trains and buses. On Catalina he dealt with some of the same problems that plague us, such as theft and public intoxication.

At the Sheriff's Homicide Bureau, he worked on both active murder cases and unsolved murders - and wrote the grant that funded the investigation of cold cases, including the local one whose resolution was announced last week.

Three years ago, as a liaison to the county Board of Supervisors, Becker wrote the study that resulted in the hiring of more than 100 deputies for the unincorporated county areas, including nine additional deputies in the unincorporated SCV.

He strikes us as an intelligent man who's smart enough to tackle his new role with eyes wide open.

"Every city has its issues and concerns," Becker said. "Coming to Santa Clarita, my role right now is to sit back and watch and listen and see what my deputies are telling me about the concerns, see what my staff is telling me about the concerns, listen to what the city (officials are) saying and what their concerns are, and certainly attending the community groups and listening to the people and seeing what their concerns are, so that I can make an informed plan on how I'm going to proceed as the chief of police here."

As a fellow SCV resident, he knows how important those crime statistics are to us - and he knows he has his work cut out for him.

It will be particularly challenging this year.

There are storm clouds brewing, and all of us had better batten down the hatches.

We may have seen the last of the ultra-low crime stats for a while - and the fault won't lie with Becker, the City Council or the Board of Supervisors, but with an inept state Legislature that doesn't know its first priority is supposed to be public safety.

The SCV is going to get more than its share of criminals when the first wave of 6,500 "nonviolent" offenders gets an early release from state prisons this year.

Of those 6,500, about 385, or roughly 6 percent, had SCV addresses when they went in, and the assumption is that they'll come back here.
We have less than 1 percent of the state's population.

Why the discrepancy? Because these are so-called "nonviolent" offenders who've gone to prison for things like theft and drug dealing.

That's the type of crime we have here. We have relatively few murders, rapes and aggravated assaults. We have a preponderance of property crimes. We spawn the type of criminals who are getting released.

We did our job. Our deputies arrested them and we voters toughened the laws that enabled our prosecutors to put them away.

The idiots in Sacramento decided they can't afford to keep them there, and besides, they're "just" nonviolent criminals. Our heart bleeds.

It will bleed a lot more profusely when they're back on the streets, victimizing more Santa Clarita citizens and putting more of our deputies in harm's way - for no good reason. There is no excuse.

Congratulations, Commander La Berge. Welcome, Capt. Becker. Good luck to both of you. We mean it.


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