Being the unique community that it is, Isla Vista faces a set of challenges not seen in other parts of Santa Barbara County, the rest of the state, and even the world – that is unless there’s some freakish third world country somewhere with a strange collection of families, bohemians, houseless individuals, and a high concentration of largely well-to-do middle class offspring living in squalor.
That being said, most of I.V.’s diverse population does its best to get along in this strange, densely populated, seaside village. The feel of the place, particularly in the generally ubiquitous sunshine, is pleasant for the most part, but there are a number of problems that exist, and many of them end up being handled by police. As a place where many people engage in activities involving heavy alcohol consumption, there are plenty of people with stories about encounters with law enforcement.
I happen to live on a very lively block of Del Playa Drive. Why, you ask, would a 30-year old want to live in such a place? Well, my reasons are centered around cheap beachside living and a particularly amazing set of roommates, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that I had my own encounter with I.V.’s famed law enforcement officials, which, while not entirely negative, caused me to ask questions about police, why they act the way that they do, and how their language and ours can often disconnect due to a different approach to certain problems. My story is somewhat straightforward, and involved me being in the wrong place at the wrong time – in this case, in my house three days before it was scheduled to be demolished, and 25 minutes after the latest wave of pre-demolition “help” had occurred.
Standing in the kitchen marveling at the destructive power of an enthusiastic group of youth armed with whatever can puncture drywall and windows, I was startled from my reverie by the entrance of six uniformed police officers – some from the campus Police Department, and some from the Isla Vista Foot Patrol, the latter of which is a branch of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department. They said they had received a report of someone wildly vandalizing the house with a bowling ball and wanted to know what I was doing there. I replied that the owner had scheduled a demolition of the house in a few days, and I was just inspecting the handiwork of the pre-demolition crew. I politely informed them that I lived in one of the rooms on the rear of the lot and had just returned from work.
I really didn’t mind answering questions, but when one of the officers continued asking the same ones over and over again, I got the idea that he really wasn’t listening to what I had to say. I got a little annoyed and told him that I was doing the same thing he was doing there: looking. But that was apparently not the response a law enforcement officer likes to hear, so he ordered me to sit down. I countered that I felt more comfortable talking to him standing up, so we could face one another at eye level, at which point I was promptly assisted to the seated position on a pile of broken glass by two of the other deputies, put in handcuffs, and had my legs positioned in front of me with a deft sweep of one of the deputy’s boots. That was when my wonderment at the difference between our communication methods began to kick in.
Having been treated in the manner I just described, I have to admit that I felt a little violated, but the officers told me that this was for my safety, so I didn’t argue. I just sat there. They weren’t rough with me or anything, just unfriendly, and I really didn’t want to tell them anything because all I could think about – innocent though I may have been – was “anything you say can and will be used against you.”
Once the initial deputy got off the phone with his superior, he looked at me with annoyed disbelief and asked me if I had been drinking. I hadn’t. Eventually, finding nothing of interest in the house, four of the officers left. The two who remained were not satisfied with my grasp of the situation. “You just don’t get it,” one of them said, and honestly, I really didn’t. I did not feel that I had done anything wrong and couldn’t see the value of following a gruffly delivered set of orders at my own place of residence.
My quest to find answers to my questions as to why law enforcement officers act the way they do led me to the office of Lt. Brian Olmstead, who, aside from his duties at the busy Isla Vista Foot Patrol (IVFP) Station, is actively involved in training sheriff’s deputies. He explained that as paramilitary organization, the Sheriff’s Department – and law enforcement agencies in general – have a method of communicating that may be different from civilians’, who are used to a lot of debate and discussion.
Olmstead also pointed out that in an organization in which quick decisions have to be made and clear orders given, the military approach of handing down orders is the most efficient way for them to communicate. Part of the problem, he said, is that many people view IVFP primarily as agents of alcohol regulation enforcement, something that he doesn’t feel is helped by the crimes regularly reported in the Daily Nexus‘s police blotter. “People focus on the alcohol problems, but they don’t realize that we’re actually chasing serious crime out there,” he said, adding that 20 percent of the serious crimes that occur in the Sheriff’s Department’s jurisdiction are in IVFP’s territory. “Unfortunately, a lot of our contexts are negative to someone. We might be helping someone, but that might mean we’re arresting someone else.”
A random canvass taken of people on the streets of I.V. indicated that people either didn’t think much about the presence of Foot Patrol officers patrolling I.V., or that they tended to think of them as a bit heavy handed when dealing with the raucous parties that occur there so frequently. “It’s intense. They seem like they’re out to get more than they should maybe,” said UCSB second year Tommy Trachter. And Charles Garcia, also a second year undergraduate at UCSB, said he heard a fight outside of his apartment one night, and before he knew it, there were police officers in his house looking for suspects. “They were kind of stern, and I felt a little violated because they came into our house, but for the most part, they were pretty cool,” he said. Ariel Salem, a student whose house has been visited by the Foot Patrol during a loud party, said that they have a reputation for exercising their power too much, but that his experience was different. “Overall they were helpful,” he said. “They were easygoing and gave us a warning.”
“Our primary objective is to protect life, and unfortunately, sometimes we have to be aggressive in how we do that,” said Olmstead. “Sometimes, if someone is not familiar with law enforcement, it looks hardcore.” He said that the main reason for such firm control of a situation is to protect officers’ safety and the safety of others. “We don’t know what’s going on when we get to a scene, so the best thing to do is control it. Once we control the scene and calm everything down, then people can talk.” Part of this control often involves asking people to sit on the ground. Although most people – myself included – do not like doing this, Olmstead said that they have so many people who run away, that they’ve found that this reduces the risk of that happening. Running, he said, increases the risk of either the detainee or the officer being injured when the inevitable chase ensues.
One of the communication problems that deputies run into on a regular basis, he said, is that people being issued a ticket want to negotiate their way out of it, but that this can exacerbate the situation. “People want to have a dialogue and discuss things with law enforcement, but a lot of people pick the wrong time to do it,” Olmstead explained.
He was adamant that, contrary to the popular myth he’s heard that unwilling candidates are sent to IVFP and that it is an undesirable gig for deputies, the billet is in fact one of the most popular because of its many interesting challenges. With nearly 18,000 people packed into half a square mile, situations do arise, including drug trafficking violations, violent crimes, and theft – many of which are related to alcohol. He said that although his agency has outreach programs designed to educate residents about various types of criminal activity they could fall prey to, the turnout at these events is often not very high. “People don’t think it’ll happen to them,” he said.
Although it often appears that often law enforcement officers and members of the public are communicating on different wavelengths, Olmstead said that his department aims to provide the same level of service that deputies themselves would expect if they called the police. “Part of being on foot and on bicycles is to be more approachable,” he said. I personally am not overly fond of being ordered to sit down on the curb when I’ve done nothing wrong, but things being what they are, I feel the need to begrudgingly accept the legitimacy of the action. While on some level this approach to law enforcement seems to work, I have to wonder if it fosters the kind of trust between law enforcement and the public that would facilitate truly community-based policing.
While I think it would be better if the cops spoke to everyone as if they were a respected town official instead of as if they might be a criminal – mostly because it might increase the community’s level of trust – it also seems likely that this approach could lead to people who really are up to no good being able to exploit the situation. It’s an unfortunate reality that many innocent people have to pay for the bad deeds of a few, but given that this is the scenario, I would prefer to do what I’m told for a few minutes so that I can do what I want the rest of the time.
After all, cops or no, one of the benefits of living in I.V. is a certain carefree lifestyle and plenty of beaches upon which to exercise it. Why get tangled up with the cops?