Tackling Crime Together as a Community

September 22, 2017
by Rick Cole

Tackling Crime Together as a Community

Bystanders, neighbors and local residents were all horrified by the events that unfolded last month in front of their eyes on Main Street—or through the media, including local television and Twitter.

The criminal investigation is unfolding, but we know this: Christopher Davis was charged with fatally gunning down an acquaintance after an argument on the well-travelled Main Street sidewalk near Strand.  A few moments later, the suspect opened fire on responding officers and was wounded by return gunfire near Hotchkiss Park, a few blocks away from the first shooting.

This is a frightening occurrence no matter where it happens—and in today’s society it is possible that it could happen anywhere.  But Santa Monica residents worry that the feeling that they live in a safe community may be slipping away, punctuated by incidents of violence like this one, the brutal home invasion robberies north of Montana and the recent brawl at the McDonald’s near the Pier which was captured and widely distributed on video.

Crime is up.  That’s true here in Santa Monica and throughout much of California. In general, while thefts and other property crimes are on the rise, the overall level of crime, particularly violent crime, are still near historic lows that haven’t been seen since the Fifties.

None of that is comforting to anyone who has been a victim, witnessed a crime or heard about a crime near their home or business.  Nor is it comforting to any of us seeing far more people on our streets recently engaging in various anti-social behaviors or exhibiting disturbing outward signs of mental illness. Government’s number one job is the safety and security of residents—and with trust in government eroded across the board, our fragile sense of security is fraying as well.

What is to be done? 

Clearly, ignoring what’s happening is indefensible. 

We can hire more cops (and Santa Monica has done that in recent years).  We can invest more money, more technology and more brainpower in crime prevention strategies and educational and social improvements (which Santa Monica has also done and will continue to do).  As Californians, we can be a little more skeptical about voting for ballot propositions and laws that sound appealing but may come with unanticipated consequences.  As Americans, we can tackle the intractable problem of easily accessible guns in our society.

We are also at an important inflection point for the Santa Monica Police Department.  Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks has been a standout pioneer in building a 21st Century police department.  Over the next several months, we will be recruiting for her successor. 

Given the heightened level of scrutiny and changing expectations for law enforcement, the next chief will chart the course for how Santa Monica builds on our commitment to community policing, constitutional policing and equitable policing.

We also need to address the increasing presence in our midst of desperate people without jobs, without homes and without hope. Although our Police Department is called upon daily to address homeless related criminal activity, it’s a mistake to conflate crime and homelessness. Homeless individuals are more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators.  Yet in a nation where living out on the streets is becoming depressingly common, it’s disturbing, but unfortunately not surprising that homeless people are increasingly a focus of community fear and frustration.

Bundling together the rise in crime, the erosion of affordable housing and the increase in homelessness creates an atmosphere of despair, stereotyping and demands for simplistic solutions.  We are better served by tackling each and all of these social challenges, recognizing their connections, but not lumping them together.

There are always opportunists of one sort or another ready to spring forward with easy answers that fit their ideological agenda.  There are also always opportunists eager to pin blame on some individual or group in order to advance their own special interests.  Fear is a famously easy emotion to exploit.

Our history teaches us these lessons.  When economic conditions have turned dark, Californians have sometimes turned against ethnic minorities or immigrants, blaming them for unemployment and crime.  When crime peaked thirty years ago, we raced to build prisons and impose severe sentences—only to later conclude that we went too far in relying on incarceration as a panacea.  Fear breeds a craving for simple, urgent answers, which seldom turn out to be wise or sustainable solutions.

Santa Monica remains a very safe community for most people, most of the time. But we cannot accept any deterioration in that fragile sense of security. 

Over the next several months, we will be convening a series of community conversations about crime, community policing, homelessness and the selection of our next Police Chief.  We will be inviting both existing community organizations and neighborhoods to host these discussions, but also seeking volunteers who will open up their homes, condos and apartments to their neighbors and friends.  Our Mayor, Councilmembers, Santa Monica Police Department, City staff, leaders and I will be participating — to listen, to inform, to share and to confer with you on what the City is already doing, what more we plan to do and what everyone in the community can partner on to work together to tackle these challenges. 

I welcome your feedback and invite you to help host one of these discussions in your home, your house of worship, your organization or your local park, library or fire station.  You can contact me at rick.cole@smgov.net.

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