Watsonville Youth City Council plans to survey police
The Watsonville Police Department will face questioning by the Watsonville Youth City Council (WYCC) this month.
The survey of officers is the first move by the youth council to follow up on a survey they conducted during October and November of 723 high school students about how safe kids feel in different parts of the City of Watsonville, and how they interact with the police.
Fifty percent of survey respondents said that they would not report a crime in progress, and 29 percent said they would not approach police for any reason.
Allowing the police to share how they view this dynamic seemed to be the next logical move for the 11-member council. The youth will attend police roll call meetings on Jan. 9 and Jan. 23 to carry out the surveys and will present their findings at their next council meeting in early February.
Ceiba College Preparatory Academy student and councilmember Juanita Alvarez hopes that the paired surveys can help bridge a gap in how the two groups view the state of the city and venues to solve problems. She says that a lack of police officers actually living within the city is a huge obstacle to residents of all ages feeling comfortable dealing with them.
“Instead of understanding we are trying to help when we report something, they judge us,” says Alvarez of police attitudes she has observed. “They might have dealt with gang issues before, but someone who lives locally would know better what is going on here.”
The survey will kick off with police filling out index cards with lines they commonly say when dealing with a group of teenagers. The WYCC will then give them feedback on how youths would view the conversation. They hope this will help bridge the communication gap they have noticed in their ongoing investigation.
Watsonville Mayor Eduardo Montesino—of the “other council,” as the youth council calls it—agrees that there is a serious issue with recruiting local police officers, and believes that addressing that could be one piece of bringing the community and police together in the long term.
“This is a problem in Watsonville, Capitola, Santa Cruz—everywhere,” says Montesino. “They come to clock in and out, and they aren’t involved in the community here.”
Around 30 Watsonville high school students are currently in the Watsonville cadet program, which trains them for careers in law enforcement. Watsonville Police Chief Manuel Solano says he
is trying to expand the cadet program to admit more participants.
“We almost always have that many cadets with some on a waiting list,” he says. “I was a police cadet. Many of us from Watsonville who are officers went through that program.”
Solano says that only about 10 percent of the force lives in the city despite success recruiting cadets into duty. He enjoys living “three minutes from work,” but says even officers who grew up locally look elsewhere for residency.
“Housing is very dense in Watsonville and prices are higher than San Benito or parts of Monterey County,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just to have space from work. After dealing with confrontations or keeping some sort of peace on duty, it can be hard to go out to dinner afterward without being approached.”
However, he counters the idea that police are not involved in the community.
“Our officers work very hard, often on their own to create ways to reach out,” Solano says.
The Police Activities League (PAL) is one example. Through sports, officers find that kids learn acceptable way to act and just generally burn off excess energy.
Alvarez and WYCC Mayor Dulce Sixtos hope that by opening communication lines between their peers and the police, more kids will jump through the necessary hoops and go on to become the force that many of them are now afraid to speak to.
Solano sees benefits in having a local presence off duty, but feels it is unrealistic to dictate where officers can live. The WYCC is not officially proposing policy ideas, but rather aims to get to know police better.
Montesino is very excited about this new voice, and has high hopes for the project. The 11-member council has representatives in grades nine through 12 from Pajaro Valley High School, Watsonville High School and Ceiba.
“This is really important because 33 percent of people here are under 18 [years old] and if you push it up to 24 [years old], it’s more than 40 percent,” Montesino says.
Solano looks forward to taking the WYCC’s survey and delving further into the data they gathered from their peers.
“If kids don’t feel safe in a certain park, we want to find out why,” he says. “The first survey was a good start but didn’t go that deep.”