THE I.V. DRIP: It was unfortunate Sheriff Bill Brown wasn’t on hand at the Board of Supervisors this Tuesday, allowing one of the supervisors to ask, “Is that a grenade launcher in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” Brown not being there, it fell to his aide-de-camp and straight man Undersheriff Don Patterson to explain to the much-surprised supervisors how his department had secured not one, but two grenade launchers. Who knew? Certainly not the supervisors. Not us, either.
This revelation came to light as part of the ongoing national debate on the militarization of police departments, sparked by the radioactive meltdown now consuming Ferguson, Missouri, where police shot and killed an unarmed black teenager suspected of strong-arm robbery. That the Ferguson PD looks and acts more like an invading army than the law enforcement agency of our Andy of Mayberry imaginations has been lost on nobody. As we wonder how we got here, it’s come to light that an obscure agency with the Department of Defense has been quietly giving away vast quantities of hand-me-down military hardware to cash-strapped law enforcement agencies eager to get the upper hand on all the twitchy-fingered psycho killers out there who may be packing armor-piercing heat. But as Ferguson illustrates, we’ve gone past the tipping point of overkill. Thanks to the sort of data-chomping meta-journalism the internet makes possible, the New York Times put together an interactive map of the United States, detailing — county by county — where all this equipment has gone. Santa Barbara, it turns out, got enough to start its own air force and invade a small impoverished nation.
In addition to the grenade launchers, Santa Barbara law enforcement agencies have procured free of charge 350 night-vision goggles, 123 assault rifles, 50 pieces of body armor, 12 pistols, six helicopters, and one armored vehicle. When Supervisor Doreen Farr described the armored vehicle as “the BearCat,” the well-known armored urban assault vehicle, Patterson quickly set her straight. “We have the Bear,” he stated. “We have a full-grown Bear, not a BearCat.” (Italics added for emphasis.) The City of Santa Barbara Police Department, it should be noted, owns a BearCat — which it procured with $225,000 in Homeland Security money and uses mostly as bulletproof eye candy at meet-and-greet community events and also on occasion in actual crisis situations. By contrast, County Sheriff deputies roll out for action in the much bigger, much badder Bear.
Patterson is to be thanked for acknowledging his department has indeed secured two grenade launchers, both of which, he said, were deployed extensively during the recent Deltopia riots in Isla Vista, discharging vast quantities of tear-gas cartridges into the zombie hordes of drunken rioters, whom the supervisors had given the sheriff advance authority to keep out in the first place. I am in no way, shape, or form equating what’s happening in Ferguson with what happened in Isla Vista. But I would also suggest if the powers that be don’t figure out what to do about Isla Vista, the sheriff will be stockpiling more grenade launchers.They’ll need to.
Isla Vista has morphed into the Goleta Valley’s municipal equivalent of the psycho-bastard stepchild — on steroids — that refuses to take his meds. The sick beauty of Isla Vista is that it’s everyone’s fault but nobody’s responsibility. While UCSB administrators are quick to wring their hands — very sincerely no doubt — they’re quick to note they’re neither empowered, competent, or funded to run a small, densely packed city, which I.V. is. Likewise, when residents of Goleta voted in 2002 to create a brand-new city, they specifically and intentionally excluded Isla Vista. They didn’t want all of Isla Vista’s many headaches. Even more emphatically, they didn’t want the new Isla Vista voters who might be inclined to support rent control. This calculus made obvious and irresistible political sense in a shrewd, shortsighted, Machiavellian sort of way. But when it’s come to the boring nuts and bolts of providing government services where such services are urgently needed, it’s proved to be an absolute, unmitigated, and escalating disaster. You do the math: There’s Elliot Rodger, a City College dropout living in I.V. who killed his three roommates, reportedly stabbing one 97 times, before going on the proverbial shooting spree — with guns legally purchased despite his long history of mental illness — killing four more, himself included, and wounding 13. Just one hour before UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang would lead a moving public ceremony at an overflowing Harder Stadium to commemorate those killed and maimed, a UCSB student named Kevin Tym accidentally discharged one of the seven handguns he kept stored in his apartment, along with 1,000 rounds of ammo. His bullet, by the way, just narrowly missed a resident in the room next door. And don’t forget about crazy David Attias, who gunned his black Saab 50 miles an hour into an Isla Vista crowd, killing four. That was so long ago that Attias has since been deemed legally sane and released to outpatient treatment. But what about the UCSB faculty housing complex under construction — almost completely built — that was just torched? What about the string of trashcan arson leading up to it? What about the gang rapes and the clear escalation of sexual violence? And what about the handful of UCSB students who predictably fall to their deaths every year from the crumbling cliffs, victims of alcohol poisoning, their own stupidity, and gravity?
Every time Isla Vista explodes, the powers that be vow to act. Something must be done, they say. This time, they really mean it. They meet behind closed doors. With memories of mayhem still freshly alive, they speak with great urgency. But the challenges are so monumental, the solutions so invisible. They get distracted by the next crisis du jour, the next election. We all do. ’Til the next ticking time bomb goes off. And there are more of them than before. And more explosive, too. And when their trip wires are tweaked, the sheriff will show up. Maybe then, he’ll have three grenade launchers. At that time, we won’t be making jokes about lumps in his pants. We’ll be happy to see him.