Community addresses recent crimes, struggles to cope
On the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 21, Santa Cruz Police Department officers addressed a packed auditorium at Santa Cruz High School. The meeting, filled mainly with Santa Cruz High parents and their children, was intended to educate the public about gangs in the wake of the death of Tyler Tenorio, 16, who was stabbed on Oct. 16 on Laurel Street near Chestnut Street, during an apparent argument between the boy and his friends and a group of gang members. On Oct. 19, Daniel Onesto, 19, was taken into custody and charged with murder, gang enhancement, and assault with a deadly weapon; police have also issued an arrest warrant for Paulo Luna, 23, and are seeking one for a third man, whose name was not publicly available at the time of print. The incident followed the rape and beating of a 69-year-old woman in her home on the Westside the Wednesday before. The last two months have also seen four reports of sexual battery in the downtown area. All of these sexual assault cases remain unsolved.
This cluster of violent acts has drawn heavy publicity and revived a perennial debate about safety in the city. Law enforcement and city leaders are struggling to quell fears that Santa Cruz as a whole, and the downtown area specifically, has become unsafe and that gang violence here is spiraling out of control. Parents at the forum expressed frustration that the city isn’t doing more to prevent gang activity and asked how they can help their children avoid conflicts with gang members; others, like local mother Lisa Castellanos, also articulated fears that Latino youths like her two teenage sons will be targets of racial profiling.
“You don’t want to believe these types of things could happen in Santa Cruz. But these are relatively uncommon types of cases.
That’s why you get such a large response.” —Zach Friend, SCPD spokesperson
Police spokesman Zach Friend says that despite these incidents, Santa Cruz is “a relatively peaceful community,” with crime statistics consistently trending downwards—a claim borne from actual offense numbers available on the Santa Cruz Police Department website, which show that overall crime has steadily dropped between 2003 and 2009, though this year has seen a slight rise in both theft and sexual assault.
Kristie Clemens, director of Domestic Violence Services at Walnut Avenue Women’s Center, has a theory about that rise: “Theft—the economy is bad and people feel out of control and are desperate,” she says. “And sexual violence—rape—isn’t about one’s expression of sexuality. It’s about control and power and dominating another person. And when some people feel out of control in their lives, they seek to dominate others to reassert their power.”
Friend says the community’s outrage at these attacks is understandable. “You have a young kid murdered by gang members and a 69-year-old woman savagely attacked in her own home,” he says. “Who wouldn’t react with anger, frustration, disbelief, and sorrow? You don’t want to believe these types of things could happen in Santa Cruz. But these are relatively uncommon types of cases. That’s why you get such a large response.”
However, he adds that even though there has been a statistical drop in crime, there is a very real perception that it has been increasing. “Perception becomes reality for people,” he says. “It’s just as important for us to address perception issues as to address actual increases.”
Nane Alejandrez, executive director of anti-gang violence organization Barrios Unidos, worries that the debate following Tenorio’s death will be another wasted opportunity to effect real change. “This is not the first time this has happened,” he says. “And we keep putting our heads in the sand and not dealing with the real issues that are affecting our community.”
While he also doesn’t believe Santa Cruz is becoming less safe overall, he says that a lack of effective drug treatment programs and rehabilitative efforts for people getting out of prison creates a cycle of violence. He also says that law enforcement has long placed an emphasis on suppression rather than prevention, which doesn’t address the root causes of gang violence: poverty, drug addiction, and a lack of opportunities and education for underprivileged youth. But he tries to remain optimistic. “I’m always hopeful,” he says. “I wouldn’t be doing this work if I didn’t believe.”
Meanwhile, Santa Cruz locals like Veronica Garrett, 35, who lives and works near downtown, struggle with how to interpret these recent events. “I feel frustrated,” Garrett says. “And I feel much more in danger. This feels like an intrusion. It doesn’t feel like an organic part of Santa Cruz. This is my home. I love it here and I want it to be safe. But I just don’t know how to change the rest of humanity.”