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An Indiscreet Dog

How much police protection can Santa Barbara afford and what do we need to be protected from?


LOCKEM UP: Just last week I called the Santa Barbara Police Department’s point man with the media, Lt. Paul McCaffrey, offering to conjure up a new crime wave or two. It would be one hand scratching the other, I tried to explain. We could sell more papers, I argued — even though they’re given away for free. And with city budget battle lines now drawn, the PD could use a fresh new crime wave to scare otherwise recalcitrant councilmembers — worried about a $2.7-million budget shortfall — into writing the department the blank check. Specifically, I was asking McCaffrey — a frustrated Russian novelist trapped in the body of a career public servant — for actual facts around which I could plausibly report the emergence of a new geriatric reign of terror. I envisioned headlines like “Grandpa’s Got a Gat!” or “Packing Heat with Pops.” Similarly, I was hoping he could provide at least one documented anecdote to support my intuitive conviction that Santa Barbara has become the birthplace of a “green-collar” crime spree, in which the well-intentioned are separated from their trust funds by a rash of get-rich-quick-and-save-the-planet investment schemes. Normally, McCaffrey is among the most obliging public-info officers on the planet, but he was unusually nonresponsive. As I would discover at this Tuesday’s City Council meeting, the fix was already in. The cops didn’t need any gimmicky crime waves I might invent; they were sticking with the tried-and-true.

Angry Poodle

At the behest of councilmembers Randy Rowse and Frank Hotchkiss, the council spent three hours hashing out various city laws routinely flouted by Santa Barbara’s swelling ranks of urban zombies, the transients and the homeless. While I’ve been busy not paying attention, it turns out, Santa Barbara has become the Black Hole of Calcutta. The barbarians are no longer at the gates; they’re already in our swimming pools. They’re drunk, they’re obnoxious, and most importantly, they’re chasing our tourists away. Fortunately, no one told the passengers on the cruise ship that docked here twice in the past two weeks. The answer, of course, is more cops. At least that’s what Jim Westby said, and he’s the most politically influential guy you probably never heard of. He played a major role orchestrating the recent conservative takeover of the City Council — normally a hotbed of rumpled Unitarianism — and will be running the election campaigns of councilmembers Dale Francisco, Michael Self, and Rowse this November. Francisco said the same thing — more cops. And to put a bow on it, Rowse termed the situation “a call to action,” adding, “The status quo is no longer acceptable.”

Obviously, there are a lot more street people on the streets. The vast majority just want to be left alone. Some are aggressive jerks. I’m not saying there’s no issue. But I am saying you can’t fix hay fever by acting like it’s pneumonia. That’s especially true given the city’s current budget predicament. At a cost of $100,000 a head per year, cops are really expensive. The only way to hire more — and that’s even more than the more cops that are already on order — is by slashing other city programs. It is doubtlessly true, as Francisco argued, that crime rates go down where cops patrol. But then what? When 86 percent of the inmates in county jail are awaiting trial on felony charges, there’s simply no room at the inn for public-nuisance offenders. You can’t lock ’em up. You can’t fine them, because they have no money. And they know it. In large numbers, they don’t bother showing up for court. And as City Attorney Steve Wiley repeatedly told the council, there’s not much anyone can do about it. In this context, what’s the point in issuing one new citation to someone who’s already been given 243?

Clearly, this will be one of the major lines in the sand during budget deliberations and this November’s elections. The homeless hawks on the council have repeatedly demanded to know why Santa Barbara can’t be more like Santa Monica, which has six full-time cops assigned to enforcing a tough-love approach toward street people. Santa Monica may be one-eighth our size, but it has a much bigger tax base and a much higher sales-tax rate. And its success at chasing away the “service resistant” has come at the expense of neighboring communities like Venice. It’s worth noting that the Police Department is already in the process of bringing seven new cops on this summer, and that they received no less than 1,700 applications. Council liberals — like Grant House, Bendy White, and Mayor Helene Schneider — have suggested there may be cheaper ways to skin this particular cat than with sworn police officers trained to carry guns. I myself have wondered if two black-and-whites were really needed to extricate a drunk from a bush or to handle a panhandler. And they jumped all over the new restorative court program, now in its first month of operation, as a hopeful way to get repeat offenders off the streets and into treatment. Aside from the council libs, City Administrator Jim Armstrong is clearly worried about having to hire so many new cops. In introducing the proposed city budget last week, he twice described the amount of general fund money going to public safety as “disproportionate.” He proposed hiring one new part-time cop (in addition to the seven on the way) and two street outreach workers to hook the homeless up with the appropriate social services. To pay for this, Armstrong proposed raiding $135,000 from a City Hall cookie jar that’s never been used this way before.

I have yet to hear anything from McCaffrey about either of my proposed crime waves, the gray or the green. I did manage to ask Hotchkiss whether he was raising the issue of the unenforced transient as part of a well-orchestrated game of political patty-cake. As always, he was brief and exceedingly to the point. “I’m not that smart,” he protested. Some people might tell you otherwise, Frank, but I’m not that dumb. At least not yet.

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