As business on State Street pops with uncommon vitality, the Santa Barbara City Council this Tuesday was all about protecting the downtown cash cow from unseemly intrusions of at-times belligerently ill-mannered street people. In response to a mounting lobbying effort led by the Downtown Organization, the City Council agreed to spend $150,000 on a new cadre of not-quite police officers, who will be empowered to issue citations and wield pepper spray and Tasers — though only in self-defense — and carry police radios.
These new Community Service Officers will be paid $20 an hour to walk State Street, wear a uniform akin to those donned by animal patrol officers, and serve as the eyes and ears of the Police Department. If need be, they will be imbued with the training and legal authority to issue citations. But unlike sworn officers, they will not be allowed to use force to detain suspects.
The council’s actions came after protracted complaints leveled by Downtown Organization (DO) leaders past and present at the occasionally profane and violent behavior of young travelers. Longtime DO boardmember Michael Jordan objected that residents and visitors alike had been “conditioned to ignore abusive vulgar comments.” Maggie Campbell, the organization’s new executive director, opined, “There’s something wrong on State Street … a degree of unacceptable behavior occurring in our community’s living room.”
Even though the outcome of Tuesday’s deliberations was all but preordained, Councilmember Cathy Murillo — more inclined to support restorative policing approaches than muscular displays of police presence — chafed at the rhetoric. Responding to Campbell’s remarks, Murillo shot back, “There’s a lot right with our downtown, and I would like to hear about that, too.” She added, “I don’t appreciate exaggeration. I get it — you’re trying to argue a point, but it’s important to stick to the facts.”
But the fact is that during the last budget deliberations, the City Council had set aside $150,000 for greater police presence on State Street at the instigation of Councilmember Randy Rowse, a former member of the DO. Rowse and the DO wanted the money spent to hire private security officers, as is done in cities like Long Beach and Santa Monica. But the politically influential Police Officers Association (POA) objected to the contracting out of a function typically the domain of the department.
The other problem was finances. A sworn officer costs $72 an hour. By contrast, a rent-a-cop costs $25. If private security wouldn’t fly with union-friendly councilmembers and brand-new cops were too expensive, the council instructed Police Chief Cam Sanchez in September to come up with a menu of other alternatives. Out of those planning gyrations the Community Service Officer concept emerged. This approach can provide up to 7,500 hours of patrol, at least on paper. It’s unclear the extent to which the $150,000 earmarked would cover the cost of bulletproof vests, Tasers, pepper spray, uniforms, and radios, or whether such additional expenses would eat into the one-time funds.
Earlier on Tuesday, the council’s Ordinance Committee hammered out more restrictive measures to limit active panhandlers from coming within 50 feet of people withdrawing cash from ATMs and extend the hours during which lying or sitting on city streets or sidewalks is banned. The current ordinance bans sidewalk sleeping from 7 a.m. - 9 p.m. The new language — if adopted by the council — would extend the ban to 2 a.m.
Longtime homeless rights advocate Peter Marin lambasted the “new war against the homeless.” Advocate Deborah Barnes dismissed as “ridiculous” further efforts to solve the problems of homelessness with law enforcement. She contended 79 percent of the targeted “young travelers” actually live in Santa Barbara and expressed doubt at any plan to chase them out of their hometown.
Such concerns did not hold much sway this Tuesday, and a 4-3 majority of the council voted to initiate authorizing the hiring of a new police officer. Mayor Helene Schneider and councilmembers Dale Francisco and Bendy White argued that such a decision should take place during budget deliberations, not in the heat of the moment. But Councilmember Gregg Hart led the charge for the new hire and won support from councilmembers Murillo, Rowse, and Frank Hotchkiss. A new police officer costs $150,000 a year, and the funds would have to come out of the city’s reserves. Currently, the department is authorized to maintain a 143-member force.