Mission Viejo Police Patrol America's Safest City
MISSION VIEJO, Calif. -- Jarrett Kurimay chuckles as he drives along this city's windy roads in his modified, black-and-white Dodge Charger police car, pointing out all the private housing developments with their imposing security checkpoints and high fences guarding lush lawns.
"Gated communities in the safest city in America," he says. "I guess you just can't be protected enough."
Kurimay, a 41-year-old deputy sheriff and 15-year veteran of the force who runs the K-9 unit here along with his dog, Kilo, has a job other police officers in this country might envy. On a ride-along with The Huffington Post Tuesday afternoon, the most action he saw was a driver making an illegal U-turn.
It wasn't just a slow day. According to statistics released this week by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mission Viejo, with a population of 94,679, hasn't had a murder since 2005. There were just 19 robberies last year. While the government discourages ranking cities on criminal activity, independent security groups frequently call Mission Viejo, which was built according to a master plan in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the safest places in Orange County, in California and in the United States.
This is the kind of place where a helicopter is dispatched to search for a man suspected of stealing clothes from a mall. It's the kind of place where Kurimay and other officers can spend time saying hello to local kids at one of the high schools and talking to maintenance men about the weather.
But it's also the kind of place that raises questions about what makes one community safe and another of similar size and demographics, to borrow Kurimay's euphemism, "busy." And it's a place that reminds one that being a police officer, even in the safest city in America, is still a dangerous job.
Kurimay, who wears his dark sunglasses all day and tries to avoid speaking about himself, almost had to shoot a man carrying kitchen knives after a domestic dispute a couple years ago, and colleagues of his were once shot at in a parking structure.
Part of what keeps those events a rarity, of course, is resources. Mission Viejo, which contracts with the Orange County Sheriff's Department for its police services to save on overhead, has a wealthy enough tax base to be able to afford the best of the best -- and then some. Take the special team of investigators who only respond to traffic crashes. Or look at Kilo, a dark and friendly mix of a Dutch Shepherd and a Belgian Malinois who was born in Holland and now assists in criminal searches and narcotics investigations.
"I like to think it's all Kilo," Kurimay jokes as the dog pants and pants for air in the backseat. Finally Kurimay opens the window a crack and the dog scurries over to it.
But that's not the entire answer; Mission Viejo, after all, has some of the same problems that face the rest of the country. Even as the unemployment picture here gets better, a 300,000-square-foot building that used to house Unisys is now vacant, and property crimes remain common at the city's largest mall.
Part of what's different here is the statistical unit that looks for trends in criminal activity and alerts officers to them, rare for such a small city. But it's might also be the sense of community. The city library -- a beautiful building with a lead-copper roof -- is bustling with programs and visitors throughout the day, and the community center that opened in 2008 remains alive with activity.
For his part, Kurimay thinks it's beyond the power of government to eliminate crime completely. He says you'd have to get rid of alcohol, drugs and domestic violence before "this would be a truly perfect place."
Until then, he and Kilo will keep driving around, occasionally stopping for a walk in the park but always careful to remember that the world -- Mission Viejo included -- is not yet perfect.