FACT OR FICTION: My first impulse, when people tell me things like, “Perception is reality,” is to reach for where my gun would be, were I the sort of person to pack heat. It is with increasing regret that I am not. My second impulse is to pat myself down — only somewhat frantically — to make sure my wallet is still where it’s supposed to be. It being election season, we’re hearing a lot of what would otherwise be dismissed as metaphysical silliness by otherwise serious folk regarding the blurry line between fact and fiction. In fact, it serves as the philosophical cornerstone for the politically popular argument that we need to hire more cops. Although candidates on both sides of the aisle in the current Santa Barbara City Council race subscribe to this proposition, it is adhered to most fervently by the three conservative incumbents. To listen to some of these candidates, one would believe Santa Barbara is a city overrun, that the barbarians have already climbed the gates. Councilmember Michael Self — my favorite conservative — said at a recent forum that the city was “terrorized” by the homeless.
Some advocacy groups calling for more cops — 13 new ones being the magical goal to which we should aspire — have publicly suggested that Santa Barbara has become less safe than even Oxnard. Given the currency this kind of rhetoric enjoys, Santa Barbarans are clearly not doing their fair share when it comes to abusing prescription pharmaceuticals. Obviously, we have some serious and intractable crime issues. But at last Thursday’s special City Council meeting, Chief Cam Sanchez put the numbers in perspective. From 1992 to 2010, the number of Part I crimes — what the FBI defines as the most serious offenses — declined from 5,600 to 2,991. That’s a 47-percent drop. Obviously, the numbers have gone up and down throughout that time. But in the past 10 years, the numbers dropped by 23 percent, from 3,900 to 2,991. When you look at violent crime — as opposed to merely serious offenses — the city experienced a decline of 11 percent last year and 13 percent thus far this year. It’s worth noting that when we had the most cops ever — 152 in 2001 — we had the third-lowest crime rate in 20 years. But it’s also true that when we had the fewest number of cops — 137 last year — we reported the second-lowest crime rate in 20 years.
Such crime stats do not make a strong case for hiring more cops — who on average cost City Hall $150,000 a year — particularly when City Hall bean counters project a structural deficit of $2.7 million a year. That’s where the “perception is reality” mantra comes in. Councilmember Randy Rowse is quick to pull that trigger, but he’s hardly the only one. If people feel scared to come downtown — residents and tourists alike — then they’ll stay away in droves and spend their money elsewhere. And we all suffer. To prime the pump, the argument goes, City Hall needs to invest in more cops to reassure everyone downtown is safe. Then the cash registers will sing.
For the past 20 years, California politicians have become experts at demagoguing fear of crime to push get-tough, lock-’em-up solutions we can ill afford and that haven’t made us appreciably safer. As a result, California prisons are crammed with 161,000 inmates — 183-percent capacity — who each cost the taxpayers $50,000 a year to warehouse. Obviously, many are seriously scary individuals and need to be locked up. But way too many are petty offenders who get sent back on nickel-and-dime parole violations. As a result, we have a prison system that gave up all pretenses at rehabilitation years ago. It boasts the highest recidivist rate in the nation — 70 percent — and costs $9.8 billion to run. That’s a lot when you consider the state is about to cut $100 million from in-home care assistance for 450,000 low-income elderly. That’s a lot when you consider we spend more on prisons than on the UC system and all the state colleges combined.
Up for grabs in Santa Barbara are three sworn officer positions that have been authorized in the budget, but not actually funded. Maybe we really need them. But before signing on the dotted line, it’s worth considering what other city services will suffer to secure the $450,000 to fund these positions, and whether there are cheaper methods to effectively deal with the homeless and the street vagrants that clearly are giving rise to this “siege perception” when it comes to downtown and Milpas Street. While City Hall has done better than most local governments navigating the budget mess, it remains a chronic problem. In the past three years, the council has wrestled with shortfalls of $9 million, $6 million, and $3 million, respectively. Other departments were hacked to protect public safety. The general-fund subsidy for Parks & Recreation dropped $3.4 million in that time. Real sacrifices were made. That translated to an 18-percent drop in funding for full-time jobs and a 28-percent drop for hourly employees. While it’s become the sport du jour to bash public-employee unions, it’s worth recognizing the Service Employees International Union agreed to more than $5 million in concessions over the past three years, almost fully half of the $12.6 million in concessions made by all the city’s bargaining units.
In the meantime, City Hall has “found” $350,000 in Redevelopment Agency funds to help deal with transient-related concerns. This money will buy one additional street cop to help Officer Keld Hove use the power of his badge to get “service-resistant” individuals the assistance they’d rather not have. In addition, it will pay for three street-outreach workers whose job is to help connect homeless people with service providers. And it will pay for six non-sworn “liaison officers” who will walk up and down State Street, Milpas Street, and the Waterfront with a kind but conspicuous swagger to keep a lid on out-of-control behavior. I don’t think they’ll be wearing Superman capes, but I’d strongly recommend they be equipped with Batman’s utility belt. They’ll be starting later this month. By their presence, the hope is, uniformed officers won’t have to spend so much time babysitting street drunks who need to be extricated from the bushes they dove into. At the risk of sounding obvious, that’s 10 new bodies. In addition, two existing cops are in the process of getting booted from their desk jobs and sent out to do patrol. And the department finally got its dispatch center under control. That means there will be real dispatchers on the job as opposed to uniformed cops who’ve been forced to fill in, but at much greater cost. Presumably, that will translate to more effective deployment of the cops we already have. With all this in the works, maybe it would be fiscally prudent to hold off on funding three new positions. In my neighborhood, $450,000 is still a lot of money.
By the next time someone running for office tells me, “Perception is reality,” maybe I’ll have an actual gun to reach for. Clearly, I need serious protection from the people who feel I should be better protected. Or at least that’s my perception. And when they call the cops on me, that’s exactly what I’ll tell ’em.