Plans to hire private security cops to patrol State Street with $150,000 in taxpayer money to keep aggressive panhandlers and unruly street people in check failed to get out of the gate during this Tuesday’s meeting of the Santa Barbara City Council. There was widespread agreement, however, that $150,000 could and should be spent on something to protect visitors and residents alike from such inhospitable intrusions. At issue was whether it should be used to hire a new sworn police officer or to augment the ranks of the “Yellow Shirts,” the name given to hourly city outreach workers assigned to interface between business owners, the homeless, and the Police Department’s Restorative Justice homeless program. In the end, councilmembers voted to delay action for 30 days. Councilmember Randy Rowse — reflecting the urgent desires of the Downtown Organization — championed the rent-a-cop idea, though the term “security guide” was used instead.
Rowse, former president of the Downtown Organization board, argued that the new security cops would act as the “ears and eyes” of the Santa Barbara Police Department while not usurping any of the enforcement authority of actual police officers. They would not carry mace, batons, or guns but would function, he argued, like a teacher on a schoolyard playground, letting the drunks, the disorderlies, skateboarders, and the mentally ill know that “adult supervision” was present. To the extent these private security officers would be armed at all, he stressed, it would only be with the cell phones they carried.
According to the Rowse proposal, City Hall would pay a private security company to dispatch two trained security guards to State Street daily from 11 a.m. - 7 p.m., one on each side of the street. This would allow city cops, he said, to focus on more pressing criminal matters. Not only are city cops more expensive — $150,000 a year with wages and benefits — but, Rowse added, they can be called away from State Street when “the stuff hits the fan” elsewhere.
The program, as proposed, would be supervised not by the Police Department but by the city’s Parking District. Similar programs are reportedly operated in Long Beach, Santa Monica, Ventura, and Oxnard, but there were enough differences to give some councilmembers serious pause. Mayor Helene Schneider, for example, expressed concern that the Long Beach and Santa Monica programs were paid for out of business taxes rather than the city’s general fund, as the Rowse proposal would. Likewise, she expressed disappointment there wasn’t a clearer picture of how the programs would actually work. Sergeant Eric Beecher with the Police Officers Association — the union representing city cops — spoke against the proposal, arguing that private security officers could significantly increase the number of calls for service emanating from downtown, thus distracting limited staff resources from where they were needed. Likewise, he argued that inexperienced private security officers could increase City Hall’s legal liability in the event of lawsuit. Councilmembers Gregg Hart and Bendy White — both endorsed in the last election by the police union — both argued against the Rowse plan, but they disagreed on where the money should be spent instead. Hart said a new sworn officer should be hired; White suggested expanding the ranks of the Yellow Shirts. Rowse lamented the Yellow Shirts’ lack of effectiveness and cautioned against expanding their numbers.
This tourist season, the Police Department had the street benches — where street people perch — removed from several blocks of State Street. When they were returned, dividers had been inserted in the middle of the benches, preventing their occupants from sprawling out. Likewise, the street sculpture in front of the Habit on the 600 block of State Street — a roost popular with “young urban travelers” — was fenced off for repairs that have yet to take place. During this year’s budget deliberations, the council approved funding for a new cop on the condition the position be dedicated to State Street patrol. That’s new. In addition, the number of officers out on injury or other reasons was reduced dramatically, and more attention was spent on State Street. This week, police beat coordinator Kasi Beutel triumphantly notified the Downtown Organization that tickets for skateboarding on State Street were now $150.