City council and local residents look for new ways to combat violent crime
On Tuesday, Nov. 10, the Santa Cruz City Council voted on five new initiatives designed to combat violent crime and solicited public comment on other ways to address the problem. The measures, all of which passed unanimously, will revise the zoning definitions and permit process for alcohol retailers, accelerate plans to install improved lighting downtown, allocate new funds for the Juvenile Diversion and Early Intervention programs, review and revise ordinances aimed at combating nuisance properties, and launch a pilot Neighborhood Empowerment Initiative, which will send bilingual two-officer police teams to do door-to-door outreach in three neighborhoods that have been hard-hit by recent violence.
The meeting follows several violent incidents downtown and on the Westside in the last two months, including the death on Laurel Street of 16-year-old Tyler Tenorio by suspected gang members, four cases of sexual assault in the downtown area, the rape and beating of a 69-year-old woman in her West Cliff Drive home, and the non-fatal shooting of two men on lower Pacific Avenue in what appears to have been a drug deal gone awry.
“I was very pleased,” Mayor Cynthia Mathews says of the meeting. “I thought the atmosphere was constructive. People were very engaged. They had well-thought out comments and suggestions and definitely wanted to be part of a solution. And it was quite diverse—we heard from people from all different neighborhoods.” She also has praise for city departments, saying, “Finance, Redevelopment, Parks, Police, and Public Works, everyone was asking, ‘What can my department contribute as a solution?’ It was great. I was very proud of our city staff.” She added that on Nov. 23, the city will host a follow-up meeting focusing on youth safety at the Civic Auditorium, in partnership with area schools.
Crime: Up or Down?
The city council meeting was the latest in a series of moves that seek to address the city’s crime issues on a broad level. In recent weeks, especially aggressive action has been taken to counter gang activity. Before Halloween, police arrested 21 suspected gang members and five suspected drug dealers in order to reduce chances of a gang-related incident during the holiday. Police officers also spent much of the evening of Halloween “chaperoning” suspected gang members, shadowing them and approaching them at the first sign of trouble. They estimate that they contacted about 50 gang members over the course of the night.
However, the measures taken at the Nov. 10 council meeting acknowledged that the issues facing the city are many, not all of them connected with gangs, and that a complex, multifaceted approach is called for in order to reduce crime overall. But the meeting also made it clear that the Police Department, the city, community nonprofits and local residents all have slightly different understandings of the extent of the problem, as well as the areas which need to be addressed most urgently.
Police Spokesman Zach Friend reiterated his previous statements that “on a whole, crime is actually down,” according to statistics maintained by the Police Department, and that what the city faces instead is “a very real problem, but more of a perception problem” than an actual increase in crime. The actual offense numbers, available on the Police Department’s website, show that crime rates have steadily decreased over the last six years, though this year has seen a slight rise in both theft and sexual assault.
In a separate interview, Assistant District Attorney Charlie Baum stated that both Santa Cruz and Watsonville have also seen a rise in gang-related crime this year. Friend also noted that over the last 10 years, the Police Department has seen its staff reduced by 23 percent, while calls for service have increased by 15 percent over the last three years. But Council Member Ryan Coonerty then pointed out that despite reductions in staff, efforts have been made not to cut uniformed officer positions. There are currently six sworn officer vacancies in the department, down from about 16 four years ago.
Also at the meeting, Council Member Mike Rotkin addressed requests from local resident Pat Kittle to further involve Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in police investigations, especially of gang crimes. “I don’t think it would be helpful for people to think when they call 911 they’re going to get a visit from Immigration,” he said, adding that the police do work with Immigration when it’s appropriate. “They’re just not going to make the call. It’s not that the commission is trying to be politically correct or not talk about illegal immigration, but that seems like a wrong-headed way to approach it.”
Assistant District Attorney Baum agrees. “The vast majority of my gangsters are legal citizens born and raised here in the U.S.,” he says. “You can only blame illegal immigration so much. Most of this is a local problem.”
Meanwhile at the council session, Council Member Don Lane emphasized the need to also work with non-law enforcement agencies in gang intervention, acknowledging the “inherent distrust” some people might have for police. “There are some situations where law enforcement will not be the right person for an intervention,” he said.
David Beaudry of the anti-gang violence organization Barrios Unidos urged the city to help fund street outreach and other community-based preventative efforts. He said that he and Executive Director Nane Alejandrez spent Halloween night downtown, offering candy both “to police officers and to guys who looked like they might be up to something.”
But in a difficult economic climate, budgeting money for each of the five new initiatives, let alone any additional efforts, will be tricky. Many of the programs approved were initially cut last year, as part of a round of budget cuts totaling $9 million. The 26 new streetlights on Pacific Avenue will cost roughly $83,000, though Director of Public Works Mark Dettle says that the energy-efficient bulbs should ultimately save about $8,000 a year in power costs. The Juvenile Diversion and Early Intervention programs will cost about $56,000 from general fund dollars. Additionally, a $117,000 Packard grant was presented Tuesday night to help save the Teen Center, which had suffered potentially lethal cuts to its funding last year as well. The Teen Center, which community leaders say helps deter youth from getting involved in gangs and other criminal activity, is set to move to the Louden Nelson Community Center in January. The grant will enable it to stay open for a limited time, but the city is still seeking donations of around $60,000 to $75,000 to keep it operational for another 18 months as planned.
Some participants at the meeting also stressed the importance of learning self-defense. Kathy Agnone of the Commission for the Prevention of Violence against Women announced that the city will hold public safety and self-defense classes for women and girls in December and January. Plans are also underway to offer public safety classes at four area schools.
Self-defense instructor Cordelia Clancy drew laughter and cheers when she took to the podium to recommend that everyone learn to defend themselves, saying “Even grannies can learn where to stick a knitting needle to fend off an attack.
“[Women need to] fight smart and dirty to stop someone in their tracks,” she added. “We cannot abdicate responsibility for our own safety. The cops can’t be everywhere at all times.”