Living in Irvine means that they can feel safe while out walking, say friends Vivian Vales, Andra Kent and Christine Ludovico, during a recent 2-mile walk along Hicks Canyon Trail.

America’s safest city

by TOM BERG

For the 16th straight year – every year since 2005 – Irvine’s winning combination of smart planning, a top-quality police force and strong ties with local residents has made it the safest U.S. city of its size.

FBI statistics for 2020 show Irvine has the lowest rate of violent crime per capita of any city in the nation with a population of 250,000 or more.

What this means for residents like Christine Ludovico, a mother of three who volunteers for local charities, parent-teacher organizations and swim teams, is that her kids can walk to school without her worrying, and she can take walks with her headphones on without worrying who might be following her.

Early last month, one day before the changing of the guard at Irvine Police Department, outgoing Chief Mike Hamel discussed some reasons for the city’s success, including the crime-busting power of Irvine’s Master Plan.

Irvine’s mounted unit is popular with the community.

The plan reinforces “crime prevention by environmental design,” Hamel said, referring to a theory contending that such factors as ample lighting and open spaces with clear lines of sight can increase public safety. Irvine’s foresight in locating business districts and retail hubs throughout the city, meanwhile, ensures that local tax revenues can support an ample, fully funded police force.

Irvine residents do their bit for public safety by supporting neighborhood watch programs and volunteer groups such as IDEC (amateur radio operators) and CERT (Community Emergency Response Team). Police officers are familiar visitors in the elementary schools, where they provide a curriculum called D.A.R.E., for Drug Abuse Resistance Education.

“I’m always quick to point out that this is a team effort,” said Hamel, who joined the department in 1995 and was sworn in as chief in 2015.

Q. When you speak of “team effort,” what do you mean?

A. What is the secret formula? It’s three different things. First, the hardworking men and women of the Irvine P.D. Next, a City Council and a city manager who have always made public safety a priority. Last is our partnership with the community. That is near and dear to us. Our motto is: “In partnership with the community.” It’s printed on our police cars, but more importantly, it’s in our hearts. Community residents – in the business community, school community, and residential community – they don’t hesitate to reach out to us and ask for help.

“We have an extremely diverse community here in Irvine. A hundred different languages, if not more. So our officers are also reflective of many different cultures and religions and ethnicities and backgrounds.” – Former Chief Mike Hamel

Q. How are you getting this message across to Irvine’s kids?

A. Our youth are such important parts of our community; they’re the leaders of tomorrow, and we must invest in them. So we have a Police Explorer program, open to all high school-aged kids, male and female, where they can come into the department and learn not only about how we operate but about how to be good stewards in the community. And we have five D.A.R.E. officers in our elementary schools, again, teaching more than drug abuse prevention, but also about being role models and having compassion for others.

Q. How do you make sure you’re getting the very best recruits for your department?

A. It’s imperative that we get the right people in the door. So when we look at recruiting, our philosophy is that we hire for heart and we train to skill. We want to find people that are good people first. So we look for people who are service-oriented. We’ve had luck hiring officers from a wide variety of industries, including many of the service industries, such as retail. In addition, we look for college experience. Nearly all of our officers have at least 60 college credits, and approximately half have college degrees.

We have an extremely diverse community here in Irvine. A hundred different languages, if not more. So our officers are also reflective of many different cultures and religions and ethnicities and backgrounds. That can be of great benefit as we go out there and try to develop trust and respect in our community.

Q. How do you hope your successor might continue Irvine’s winning streak?

A. We need to continue to build on our successes but not rest on our laurels. I’ve always said that it’s important to acknowledge some of the things we’re doing well but realize that no department, no organization is perfect. There is always room for improvement. We must continue to keep our ears open and our eyes open to understand the needs of our community.

We also need to be sure that we’re looking at diversity in hiring and that we continue to attract and recruit and retain personnel across the entire department that reflect our community.