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Crime Watch on the Web

news2Controversial local website keeps tabs on stabbings

There are some things that shouldn’t be joked about—although, despite being taboo, even the most offensive of topics often end up as the theme of a “South Park” episode or a joke in some comedian’s stand-up routine.

Here in Santa Cruz, a serious subject has been given comedic life on the increasingly popular website StabSantaCruz.com. The site features a “Stab-O-Meter” that tallies the number of stabbings per year, a “Stab Clock” that keeps track of the number of days we’ve gone without a stabbing, and merchandise, like a T-shirt that reads “Stabalicious! Santa Cruz, California.” A purposely-tacky image tops the page, showing silhouetted figures running from a legion of disembodied knives with the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in the background.

Santa Cruz doesn’t take its violence lightly, but despite the site’s blatant facetiousness and debatable distastefulness, neither does its creator.

Helbard Alkhassadeh is a 37-year-old product photographer, radio host, website hobbyist and unofficial Santa Cruz crime watchdog. He launched Stab Santa Cruz in October 2008 after hearing about a spell of stabbings that happened over the course of one weekend, generating 10,000 hits in its first month. The site’s purpose is to raise awareness about a community problem, Alkhassadeh says, and the humor is just the hook.

“I knew that if I made it a serious site, it would end up being boring and no one would care and everyone would still go to the news sites to get [that information],” he says. The way he sees it, visitors are coming for a laugh, but leaving knowing the gravity of the issue. “It’s a positive bait and switch,” he says.

Not all visitors find the website funny, however, and Alkhassadeh reports receiving equal parts hate and fan mail.

According to the site, 71 stabbings were reported in Santa Cruz County in 2009. As of press time, the 2010 Stab-O-Meter was at seven.

“It was at zero on Jan. 1, and now we’re at seven,” Alkhassadeh told Good Times in early February. “Seven people have had to go in and get themselves stitched up. We’re on our way to another 70 plus year. The clock is ticking.”

Santa Cruz Police Department spokesperson Zach Friend guesses that Alkhassadeh’s information (gathered from local news sources and e-mails from community members) is “pretty accurate.” Although he says StabSantaCruz.com rarely crosses the SCPD’s radar, Friend does believe the site is serving a unique purpose: unlike news sources or the police department, where the violent crime data is not separated by types of crime, the site aggregates all of the information on one specific issue.

“People may read on a day-to-day basis that there was a stabbing in the county, but it doesn’t enter their conciousness in the way that it would if they went to an aggregated source, like his site, where they’d see the total number of a specific crime, like stabbings,” says Friend. “I assume that’s what he’s making a commentary on. It shows the full extent of a specific problem.”

The website might not be on the police radar, but Alkhassadeh has been for several years. After moving to the “Lower Broadway” area of the Beach Flats in 2003, he spearheaded a neighborhood effort to curb crime and clean up the notoriously shady area. He encouraged neighbors to call 911 when needed (something that seems obvious, but he says residents weren’t doing), and launched the website thelowerbroadway.com, where neighbors can find safety tips and resources, hear neighborhood stories and news, and more.

According to Friend, the area “absolutely benefited after they got organized.”

Following the success of the Lower Broadway movement, Alkhassadeh decided to expand his peace-making goals. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to change the world, but I can change my street,’” he says. “Stab Santa Cruz goes back to that philosophy: I’ve got to pick my battles. I think that as a community we can fix this. There will always be stabbings, but we can reduce them.”

2009 saw one stabbing that brought the entire community—Alkhassadeh’s site included—to a standstill. The tragic death of 16-year-old Santa Cruz High School student Tyler Tenorio, who was stabbed to death on Oct. 16, led to a wave of public outcry over local violence. Alkhassadeh received what he calls a “rash of angry e-mails” about his site, which many felt made light of the situation. Tenorio happened to be the nephew of one of his close friends; the heartbreak of stabbing had finally hit home for Alkhassadeh.

“There was this personal connection—someone I knew had someone who was so close to him, so valuable, taken away. It just didn’t make sense,” he says. In the face of increasing scrutiny, he charged forward with the website. “My friend said ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’” he remembers. “That was a big justification of the site for me.”

He hopes that Santa Cruz will turn concern into action, and that someday he will be able to retire StabSantaCruz.com due to low numbers of stabbings. Until then, he’ll continue relaying the information through the universal language of humor.

“I don’t know what more the police can do. I think it’s the people who need to stop thinking, ‘I’ll be fine,’” he says. “The 16-year-old getting stabbed not far from his school—a teenager getting murdered—should have been a wake up call to Santa Cruz that we need to step up. We the people need to step up. We need to stop telling the government to do something that is our responsibility.”

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