.The Reality of Crime

GTW041113In the wake of recent crime tragedies, Santa Cruz officials and locals weigh in on safety and violence. PLUS: A deeper look at crime data and what it really signifies for Santa Cruz.

Tuesday, Feb. 26, Santa Cruz police officers Sgt. Loran “Butch” Baker, praised as the SCPD’s top investigator, and Detective Elizabeth Butler, an expert in sexual assault cases, were shot down in the line of duty by Jeremy Goulet.

The officers were following up on an allegation against Goulet of sexual assault the previous week by a female co-worker from a local coffee shop where they both worked. About 15 minutes after the officers were shot, there was a brief encounter between Doyle Street resident Patricia DePalo and Santa Cruz Fire Capt. Jerry Freeman.

DePalo lives around the corner from where Goulet resided on the 800 block of Branciforte Avenue, where the officers were killed. At the time of Baker and Butler’s deaths, DePalo had been in the shower and did not hear the gunshots that took their lives. Not long after, she was taking her trash to the street when she noticed a redheaded man sitting in a white car parked in her apartment building driveway.

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Although she didn’t know it at the time, the man in the white car was Goulet—a military veteran with a history of sexual assaults on female soldiers, who had been arrested numerous times for sex- and gun-related crimes, including rape in Hawaii and attempted murder charges, and had served jail time in Portland, Ore. She had no way of knowing that Goulet had ambushed Baker and Butler while they stood on his doorstep, or that he had taken their guns and stolen their unmarked car. Instead of fleeing, Goulet returned to the area of the crime.

When DePalo reached the end of her driveway and saw a fire truck and police tape stretched across the street, she realized that something serious had transpired. She noticed Freeman standing beside the fire truck and froze, not sure whether to retreat into the house or stay put. Freeman saw her and urgently beckoned her over. According to DePalo, Freeman pointed to the white car back in the driveway and said: “Have you ever seen that guy before. Does he live here?”

“No,” she replied.

cover Baker-familyEarlier, Freeman had seen the car pull in and thought there was something odd about it. He called over a police officer that had been helping with house-to-house searches after the killings and told DePalo to describe the man she’d seen sitting in the car to the officer. The description reported earlier by witnesses matched, and a number of officers from SCPD and the Sheriff’s Office, along with members of SWAT, rushed to the Doyle Street location. Goulet, now out of the car, took up a position behind a brick pillar next to the garage.

 Freeman began yelling to his fire crew and a crowd of spectators that had gathered to take cover: “You guys! We need to get out of here. There is going to be a gunfight!”

Seconds later, bullets were flying, many lodging themselves into nearby vehicles. Freeman took cover behind the fire truck, which took several bullets. Firefighter Clayton Ogedon was out in the open in the street with DePalo. The two ran but DePalo tripped and fell onto the pavement—both were still in Goulet’s line of fire. Ogedon then climbed on top of DePalo, offering himself as a shield.

Freeman called again for everyone to take cover, but DePalo was still on the ground with Ogedon, who refused. He yelled back that he would not leave her. In the seconds that passed, which DePalo says felt like hours, she recalls the horrible smell and taste of gunpowder as she lay facedown in the street while law enforcement engaged in a shootout with Goulet. She plugged her ears with her fingers to block out the gun blasts.

Freeman, who was still behind the fire truck, did not feel protected. He thought that Goulet might actually be winning the gunfight on the other side. “I’d seen the two officers he shot, and I know this guy was a good shot,” he says, recalling the vivid details of the day. “Most people can’t do what he did. So, part of me thought he might win and then come around the truck and shoot us. I was thinking we were sitting ducks.”

The gunfight lasted about 30 seconds, Freeman estimates, but says, “It seemed like an eternity.”  He says that DePalo’s assistance in identifying Goulet probably saved a lot of people in the area from being ambushed.

“It seemed to us that instead of Goulet having the opportunity to sneak up on the cops, things were turned around,” Freeman says. The police officer Freeman had first called over, who was involved in the shootout, later came to Freeman and said, “Thanks. You saved my life.”

But, Freeman points out, “We were all diving and running, and those guys stood there and shot back. I know they were just doing their job, but it was an incredible and brave thing they did.”

DePalo says she is still shaken about that day—she feels jumpy, irritable, restless, and traumatized, an “emotional wreck.” She imagines that, to an extent, everyone in the community is experiencing something similar.

Collective PTSD?
There are certain kinds of exceptional events, often violent in nature, that are so traumatic, like the recent killing of two Santa Cruz Police officers, that they powerfully alter people’s feelings and perceptions. Last February’s shooting, as well as several other violent incidences, have shaken Santa Cruz and have caused many people to question the area’s safety. Santa Cruz County Chief of Probation Scott MacDonald agrees that in the period following violence, such as the tragedy that unfolded on Doyle Street, a community, especially a small one like Santa Cruz, can experience something akin to collective Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

cover ButlerDog“If an individual has a psyche, so does a community,” MacDonald says, adding that a community’s reaction can be paradoxical: the traumatic incident causes people to feel as if they live in a more dangerous, less caring world, but their own trauma and reaction as a community also shows a rise in their own level of compassion and community consciousness.

In addition to the February shootings, several other violent crimes in the same month—two shootings, one fatal, an armed robbery, and a home invasion—may have contributed to a kind of group anxiety and distress following the officers’ murders.

Feelings such as fear and intolerance also factor into the community’s response and can have undesirable effects.

One reaction to traumatic events such as these is a widespread feeling that something profound has changed in the fabric of the community. But, MacDonald says, sometimes there is a chasm between perception and hard data. That does not diminish the nature of the tragedy or the reality of how the community feels, but the ability to distinguish between emotional perception and the story that crime statistics tell is important, he points out. “Often perception rules the day,” he says.

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Don Lane notes that the feelings of the community can take on a reality of their own.

“There were some very significant, very violent incidents, and no one can question that, so in that sense the community has experienced a change,” Lane says. “But whether it represents a fundamental change in the community, I think that’s less clear.”

Mayor Hilary Bryant says the murder of the two officers is one of the most difficult things she has ever had to cope with, and that the entire community is grappling with the trauma.

“We were collectively impacted by this because these two people were friends to so many of us,” she says. “It’s profoundly affected me in a variety of ways. I’m grieving with the community; I’m angry with the community.”

Bryant adds that she feels many people have been on edge since the shooting and that she’s aware of a heightened sense of fear.

But MacDonald goes on to point out the disconnect between the local narrative of crime and the real crime data. Anecdotally, he recalls the vicious 1993 murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma, Calif. Statistics indicated the crime was at an all-time low, but following the murder, fear of crime was at an all-time high.

“You get a story that happens .001 percent of the time, like her murder, and that seizes everyone’s psyche and sentiment,” he says.

Statisticians call rare events like these “Black Swans.” They are impossible to predict, describing events that are surprising, have a major effect, and afterward, are often inappropriately rationalized in hindsight.

MacDonald believes the Jeremy Goulets of the world are Black Swans.

Lane notes that online social networks and media sharing can contribute to a heightened perception of danger. He gives an example of a video made last summer documenting trash and hypodermic needles in public spaces, which received a lot of attention and was heralded as exposing a new problem. “But,” Lane says, “the city’s Parks Department will tell you that they’ve been finding needles for a really long time.”

SCPD Deputy Chief Steve Clark says that increased citizen reporting has absolutely influenced perception. “Even if the crime numbers didn’t increase, it certainly would make you feel less safe,” he says. “Public safety is more than just a statistical value, it’s an emotional feeling and reaction, as well.”

Crime spikes happen, he adds, and police will react to those spikes, but it’s very important to organize the data and assess it over more than a snapshot in time in order to capture an accurate picture of what is really unfolding.

Crime History: A Numbers Game?
Historically, Santa Cruz has experienced crimes that have traumatized the community, transformed communal perception, and even changed the reputation of the city at a national level. During the 1970s, several serial killers helped land Santa Cruz the title “Murder Capital of the World.” Those crimes eventually faded into myth, Lane explains, marking them as anomalous events, or Black Swans.

When 16-year-old Tyler Tenorio was killed in 2009, it was a landmark crime for the community, Lane says. The death of 19-year-old Carl Reimer in April 2010 rattled an already uneasy sense of local crime and safety. Last May, Charles Anthony Edwards was accused of killing Santa Cruz business owner Shannon Collins. Edwards was a homeless man with a history of mental health problems. The incident jolted the conversation about public safety, homelessness, and where those two arenas cover firetruckintersect. More recently, the murder of 32-year-old Pauly Silva in Downtown Santa Cruz on Feb. 9, seen as gang-related, was part of a recent whirlwind of violence, including the nonfatal shooting of a 21-year-old UCSC student while she was waiting for the bus on Feb. 11, an armed robbery on Mission Street on Feb. 13, and a home invasion on Feb. 20 in which both suspects were caught. All of it has ignited heightened community concern.

Officials say it will take time and data tracking to see whether these recent crimes represent a major shift, or if they, like the serial killings of the ’70s, prove to be rare occurrences and fade into Santa Cruz’s history.

Reviewing overall crime statistics in Santa Cruz as far back as 1990, the numbers indicate that crime levels have basically remained the same, with the exception of burglary, which trended down dramatically between 1990 and 1998, according to SCPD crime data. The crime rates each year go up a little and down a little, and every month, crime rates vary, trending upward during the warmer months.

Across all categories, year-to-date crime levels in February compared with the same month last year show a 12 percent decrease. Burglaries increased 30 percent while aggravated assault decreased 13 percent.

However, some crime categories can alter data dramatically even when their numbers change only a little.  When looking at small data, MacDonald advises caution. The variation of small-number data from year to year, such as with low-frequency crimes, like homicide, skews percentages heavily and changes the way a statistical narrative reads.  For example, between 2011 and 2012, homicides in Santa Cruz increased 200 percent—from one to three. Burglaries, on the other hand, which occur in greater numbers, decreased only 7.2 percent—from 568 to 527.

Measuring homicides year-to-date for February of this year compared to February of last year, there was a 300 percent increase—from 0 to 3. For the same periods, forcible rape is down 71 percent—from 7 to 2.

“It’s the tyranny of small numbers,” MacDonald explains.

Santa Cruz local Erik Bovee, who runs an overseas venture capital fund and works extensively with statistical data, has taken an interest in local crime trends, conducting his own research, which he has shared with city officials and community groups. Bovee notes that local crime has remained relatively steady over time, but his data, which included FBI information, reveals that, when comparing Santa Cruz with other cities of a similar size, Santa Cruz has much higher levels of crime.

He compared Santa Cruz’s crime rates from 2009 to 2011 with approximately 40 other cities that have populations between 50,000 and 61,000, such as Davis and Petaluma. The data shows that Santa Cruz’s crime rates across-the-board are three to five times higher than similar cities.

When ranked against those other cities’ crime levels based on their census populations in 2011, Santa Cruz came in first in the categories of property crime, aggravated assault and larceny theft.

With those values, it’s easy to infer that Santa Cruz has an abnormally severe crime problem.

“There’s something really different going on here,” Bovee says.

cover SCPDmemorial2Clark sees these comparisons in a different light.

“Bovee’s data makes Santa Cruz look like the Wild Wild West,” he says. “There really is no other city that you can truly benchmark to Santa Cruz.”

Other cities that have the same official population do not have all the amenities of Santa Cruz—a world-class amusement park, a University of California campus, the beaches, the surf, and a vibrant downtown with a high number of alcohol outlets in close proximity to one another.

According to Christina Glynn, communications director for the Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council, the entire county receives about three million visitors per year.

A good portion of those visitors visit the beaches, downtown and the Boardwalk, all located in the city. Although official census numbers are what the city uses for calculating crime rates, Clark says that if one is going to compare statistics with other cities of similar census populations, Santa Cruz’s crime rates per capita should be based on the city’s true population by sampling the number of people in the city on various days and averaging those figures out.

“If you did that, those crime rates, from a percentage perspective, would be significantly lower,” Clark says, noting that it’s very clear that Santa Cruz crime rates peak during the summer and around holidays. “In those months we import a lot of problems. We see a lot of alcohol- and drug-fueled violence. Gang violence. And with that comes more property crimes, theft, vandalism, and burglaries.”

He says most of the assaults, fights and drunk-in-public misdemeanors during summer months are not attributed to locals or the homeless population. “They’re people who are coming in to catch a show, or go drinking downtown, so these are part of the imported problems,” he says.

Crime Theories
In the wake of distressing crime, people often focus on what they perceive to be the principal causes of crime and why it might be increasing. In Santa Cruz, the major theories include drugs, political liberalism, economics and homelessness, which is regarded by some as a primary link to local crime levels.

City Councilmember Pamela Comstock, who is a co-founder of the grassroots community action group Take Back Santa Cruz, believes a significant issue is that local homeless service providers do not distinguish between the people who violate laws and abuse drugs, and those who fall on hard times.

“The result is a free-for-all where a person can be arrested multiple times for various offenses and still be provided with services at our expense,” she told GT via email, explaining that the clients of the Homeless Services Center, which receives $180,000 annually from city funding, represent a much higher cost to Santa Cruz than just that funding budget. 

cover processt’s not what we pay for them,” Comstock adds. “It’s what they cost the community.”

That cost annually adds up to tens of millions of dollars if one accounts for the calls to fire, police and medical services and the lost tax revenue downtown due to the aggressive behavior associated with many of the homeless, she says.

“It creates an environment that’s not conducive to a consumer’s experience,” Comstock says, referring to lost revenue from would-be downtown shoppers. 

According to Clark, of the total number of arrests made by the SCPD between March 2011 and March 2012, 39 percent of the arrestees indicated their addresses as homeless, transient or at the Homeless Services Center. This year, when Clark ran those numbers, it was up to 42 percent.

Lane poses the question: What portions of those arrests are for violent felony crimes and property crimes and what portion is for nuisance behavior crimes, substance abuse, disorderly conduct, camping, and downtown ordinance violations? Drug dealing, drug use, and crimes committed by users are often cited as one of the principal causes of high crime rates in Santa Cruz.

Comstock says drugs are a direct cause of crime in Santa Cruz, citing an increase in property crimes. “There’s a very tolerant attitude toward drugs and a huge drug culture in Santa Cruz, especially marijuana,” she says. “And marijuana is a gateway drug. It brings in dealers and users of all kinds.”

Lane, on the subject of tolerance for marijuana, agrees, acknowledging the complications. “People often say pot is fine and that it shouldn’t be lumped with hard drugs, and well, it shouldn’t in a way. But the reality is, when you think about the culture of your community saying that we don’t think marijuana should be illegal, and we don’t respect some of the laws that make drugs illegal, that brings with it a whole lot of problems.”

Santa Cruz Culture and a Liberal Government
There are those who subscribe to the theory that the desire to “Keep Santa Cruz Weird,” as the well-known bumper sticker and longtime local catchphrase goes, is a driving factor that draws transients into town and perpetuates a lax attitude toward deviance, law enforcement and drugs.

cover mug1ane says the real idea behind the slogan is that Santa Cruz is tolerant of different kinds of people, and with that comes eccentric artists, street culture, tourists, poor people and political diversity, and within those categories, people who are homeless, without regular jobs, who use marijuana, and in some cases, harder drugs.

“Those diverse elements are mostly positive,” he says, “but you don’t always get to pick and choose how they play themselves out.”

A common accusation surrounding issues of crime management and local policy is that city government takes too lenient an approach to homelessness and drug tolerance, allowing more criminal activity.

cover mug2“We have a history of accusing people of not being compassionate whenever an issue related to homelessness arises,” Comstock says. “No one wants to be considered un-compassionate. As a result, our broken system has gone on and on. We made it easy for criminals to hide under the blanket of our services and we’ve never distinguished between those who abuse our city from those who fell on hard times despite their best efforts.”

She says this has created a system where a person can commit various criminal offenses and be arrested, but still access homeless services at the community’s expense.

Comstock suggests a solution: create a contract that stipulates that if a person is accessing homeless services in the city, they must agree to not get arrested or cited for infractions. If they fail to abide by the terms, then they will no longer be eligible for the services. “This would change the perception that Santa Cruz is a haven for the homeless and that ‘homeless’ equals ‘criminal,’” she says.

Lane, however, believes the direction the city is going is one of less tolerance.

“To me, it’s interesting to hear people say our government is too lax, when all these specific changes in city policy have been moving in a direction of lower tolerance,” he says, citing that the city recently adopted new ordinances restricting activity on sidewalks, a higher police and security presence downtown, and the campaign last summer eradicating illegal homeless campsites.

There is an ongoing dialogue on the city funding for homeless services and lack of regulation on those services. But the funding for homeless services in the past five years has decreased by $100,000, bringing the amount down to about $180,000.

“That’s a pretty serious get-tough approach, so it’s not like the city is doing more,” Lane says.

Another factor is the poor economy over the past four years, which, Lane notes, has contributed to lower wages, unemployment, and homelessness, often causing people to rely more heavily on supportive services. He also says that due to heavy budget cuts, locally and statewide, those social welfare and supportive services programs have lost considerable funding, and that leads to people not having access to assistance, falling deeper into hard times, and possibly committing crimes.

cover survalenceGini Matute-Bianchi, a former professor at UC Santa Cruz and current organizer of the Community Against Gun Violence group, says she worries that Santa Cruz is changing for the worse, citing more aggressive panhandling downtown and open drug use, but she’s also concerned about an increasingly divided perspective on how to solve the problems.

During a community meeting last month, she says that she got a “good strong whiff of the growing polarization of the people who want to aggressively clean up Santa Cruz by getting rid of the homeless and the druggies, and those who agree we have problems but are seeking a more humane and compassionate approach. I’m very concerned about the vigilantism and the targeting of specific groups.”

Cindy Fairhurst Thorp grew up on the Westside during the ’70s and recently opened The Quail & Thistle Tea Room in Capitola. She also believes that Santa Cruz is going through changes and says that, to her, the city feels less safe. But she compares her concern for the community reaction to the way Americans felt in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack. 

“When 9/11 happened, President [George] Bush had the opportunity to rally the world, and he kind of blew that,” she says.  “I don’t want to see that happen with the officers’ deaths. We need to continue to pull together from this instead of polarizing.”

The idea that people may react to traumatic events with anger, fear and intolerance played out last month for a 57-year-old homeless man named Frank Smith. Smith says he has been repeatedly harassed and photographed by members of Take Back Santa Cruz.  Photos of him and his motor home regularly appear on the group’s Facebook page. He says he was most alarmed by an incident that he says occurred the evening of Friday, March 15 while he was sleeping in his motor home, parked legally on River Street. 

He says he awoke to voices shouting profanities, banging on the outside walls of the motor home, and hands rocking the vehicle back and forth. Opening his door, Smith was confronted by a man and woman telling him belligerently how much they paid to live in their house and that he needed to get out of their town.

cover cycle“It’s a form of mass hysteria,” he says of an increasing intolerance for the homeless population. “And it has a snowball effect.”

Smith, who operated his own business profitably for many years but became homeless following a car crash that broke his neck, is currently in the process of receiving housing through the 180/180 Campaign.

On the morning of Feb. 26—before the shooting of officers Baker and Butler—the Homeless Services Center (HSC) received a voicemail from a nearby business owner who had a run-in with a homeless man. The message said: “The next time one of your clients gets between me and getting to work, he’s going to end up in a black plastic bag on your doorstep.”

“There’s an important place in our community for discussion about public safety,” says Monica Martinez, executive director at HSC, “but it seems that some people have gotten out of control.”

Lane explains that there is a twofold reaction to violent crime spikes. One says, “We need to do something about this right now and make big changes,” and another that says, “True, but let’s really think about this before we make those changes.”

“We don’t have unlimited resources and you don’t want to make change just for change’s sake,” he adds. “You need the energy of people who are upset, but we also need to take that energy and make sure that it’s constructive.”

A petition called “Together for a Safer Santa Cruz County,” created last month, aims to stem the kinds of reactions that can lead to intolerance and hasty decisions, and move forward with evidence-based solutions. Both Lane and MacDonald, as well as County Superintendent Michael Watkins, local Executive Director of the United Way Mary Lou Goeke , First District County Supervisor John Leopold, and 1,200 others, have signed the petition. 

cover flag“Fear and frustration from these very real issues lead to ineffective reactive, responses, quick-fix solutions and the scapegoating of the most vulnerable populations in our community,” reads the declaration. “These reactions do not lead to the effective and sustainable solutions that Santa Cruz County needs to truly solve its problems.”

“Essentially,” MacDonald says, “it states, ‘Let’s come together, be data driven, not be overly reactive, and let’s find solutions that work.’”

Another group, comprising representatives of various local nonprofits, social service providers, and churches, is working to promote productive and positive responses to crime. They have organized an upcoming series called  “Santa Cruz Forums on Safety and Compassion.”

The first, called “Drugs, Public Health and Needle Exchange,” was held on April 10. The second forum, called, “Homelessness and our Home Town” will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 24 at the Santa Cruz High School Theater, 415 Walnut Ave.,  in Santa Cruz.

The group supports the petition “Together for a Safe Santa Cruz County.“

“While we, like many others, are concerned about crime and safety, we who are organizing the forums question the narrative that it is our tolerance and compassion that lead to violence,” says Stacey Falls, a teacher at Santa Cruz High School and forum organizer.

She adds that responding to local crime and social issues with fear and anger leads to ineffective, reactive responses, quick-fix solutions and the scapegoating of the most vulnerable populations in the community. “Our group thinks we need to collectively take a deep breath and move towards reason and evidence-based solutions.” 


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