Here we are again.
Another innocent Santa Cruz resident murdered and the community horrified. The homicides in Santa Cruz continue to become more tragic than the last. Once again we hear the sound of a broken record telling us it was an isolated incident and Santa Cruz is a safe city. Once again we have had our candle light vigils and this time, a night of howling at the moon. But, whether we want to admit it or not, nothing we are currently doing will prevent the next innocent resident from being murdered senselessly. Our city leadership has failed us, our public safety organizations have failed the community and our local media is insignificant.
We want Santa Cruz to be Madyson Middleton, innocent, carefree and happy. But, Santa Cruz isn’t Madyson. Santa Cruz isn’t safe and the segment of its population consistently under attack are women and children. The obvious similarity with the last three high profile murders in Santa Cruz is that they were all female and one was a child, all three murdered by men.
We have spent the last 3 years trying to figure out how to prevent crime. Organizations like Take Back Santa Cruz, which has done more than any other local organization to bring awareness to local crime, has predictively morphed into just another Facebook group discussing found bikes and complaining about the rate of crime in Santa Cruz. On TBSC’s Facebook page the organization’s goal is described as “… to make the streets of Santa Cruz County safe and free from drugs, gangs and abusive behavior.” If that is the goal of TBSC, then the organization has failed. With a huge spike in heroin use the past year, a gang war impossible to ignore churning on the Westside and transients endlessly streaming into Santa Cruz and harassing locals, tourists and business owners, problems have gotten worse, not better.
Santa Cruz needs TBSC and in no way am I blaming the organization or its members. But, year after year, even with all of this attention to local crime, Santa Cruz seems to be a city heading in the wrong direction.
Weak City Leadership
Santa Cruz is run by unqualified elected officials. The task at hand is too big for this elected group. This job needs better qualified people. A major reason for the lack of qualified leaders is pay. Our city council and mayor positions pay less than a part time job at Taco Bell. Santa Cruz has a cost of living 98.5% higher than the U.S. Average. If we expect our leadership to survive in the city they’re elected to run, then we should pay them accordingly. Incentives don’t increase the motivation to serve, but better candidates will step up to the job knowing they can make a difference and focus on the job at hand without the distractions of running a small business or financial stress. A reasonable wage can have strong impacts on the performance of organizations.
Local reporter Mat Weir’s article “No Place to Call Home” is probably the most depressing piece I’ve read in years. Breaking down the horrible rental dilemma Santa Cruz is facing and locals trying to survive in a city with an unbelievable median home price of $726,000. When Councilmember Micah Posner was asked by Mr. Weir about rent control, Posner noted how corporations will most likely sue the city over the laws. He later commented that the budget talks were “…taking up all my time”. If Santa Cruz residents plan to have a functioning city moving in the right direction, part time, low paid city leadership afraid of possible lawsuits and too busy to handle two topics at the same time will get us nowhere.
The Council-Manager form of municipal government in Santa Cruz needs to be replaced with a Mayor-Council government. The people of Santa Cruz should have the opportunity to elect their mayor. Currently Santa Cruz mayors are chosen from among the council on a rotating basis. The current mayor received 15,477 votes in the 2012 election. That’s only 24% of the city population voting for the person who is currently the mayor and only 19% of the total votes received by the entire council. Santa Cruz should give the mayor its mandate. With a mandate comes responsibility. Let’s keep our leadership responsible for their actions, not their appointed task forces.
Weak Local News Organizations
12 days before Madyson was murdered, a woman on Blackburn St. was robbed and raped in her home. Local TV news stations KION and KSBW and local newspaper Santa Cruz Sentinel had zero coverage of the incident. A week later another woman, on the 1100 block of Pacific Ave. reported to police how a man that had raped her was now stalking her, yet again, no news coverage. Statistically, the number of rape victims in Santa Cruz last year tripled from the prior year, but our local news reporting does not reflect the reality of crime in Santa Cruz. If you think local crime is bad, you’re actually not getting the entire story.
When it comes to theft crimes Santa Cruz is ranked 6th in the entire country among cities with populations of 60,000 to 100,000. 14th in Property Crime. Increasing gang graffiti on the Westside in the past 3 months has led local law enforcement to conduct gang sweeps. When was the last time any of us remember local law enforcement conducting major gang sweeps in Santa Cruz? In the first week of August 2015, 31 gang members were arrested in a single sting operation. Charges ranged from outstanding warrants to terrorist threats and conspiracy. Santa Cruz is not safe and we continue to pretend things are getting better.
Just a couple weeks before posting this article, Mission St. near Safeway on the Westside was blocked off by law enforcement, guns drawn as they arrested two men in their car. Not a single news report.
A local business owner showed me a security video from an incident that occurred a couple months ago. The video clearly shows a transient walking up to a customer and for no reason at all stabs the man with a sharpened stick in the side of his head. The video is terrifying. Santa Cruz police found and released the suspect (he didn’t have the stick on him and was released). The transient then went into the Food Bin and caused another crime and was arrested. If anything, this was a case of attempted murder, but none of us heard anything about this on the local news. Even though the shop keeper contacted local news agencies.
Meanwhile, our local news is busy asking us to post our favorite sunset photos.
I was recently asked by a friend how it’s possible for the number of stabbings in Santa Cruz to drop from over 70 down to 13 in just 4 years. In fact, I have been just as surprised by this dramatic drop in numbers, so I asked a police officer. The response from him was not what I expected. The number hasn’t dropped, we just haven’t heard about the incidents. When I started StabSantaCruz.com in 2008, I was in constant communication with local news agencies. They shared information with me and I tried to give them any information I had received. The desire of getting the story out to the community has been replaced with the number of clicks a Facebook page receives. Santa Cruz deserves better reporting. Local news gathering and delivery by our media outlets is playing catch up with the size and needs of our community.
Santa Cruz doesn’t even have any local news agency. Our weekly magazines Good Times and Santa Cruz Weekly are owned and operated by a San Jose company. Our television news stations KSBW and KION are located in Salinas (the KSBW Santa Cruz “station” is a small office on Soquel Ave next door to Ristorante Italiano). Sentinel Newspaper is located in Scotts Valley. There is not a single news agency located within Santa Cruz. Our information about local crime is coming from other cities. As long as we don’t have a centrally located news agency owned and operated within Santa Cruz we can all expect a lack of valid and pertinent information.
By law, Santa Cruz is required to maintain a percentage of low income housing.
The Tannery and 1010 Pacific Ave have been praised as a step towards the housing problem. Both were funded by the redevelopment agency and both along with 11 other complexes under the redevelopment agencies programs accept Section 8 vouchers. The Section 8 program allows landlords to rent apartments at fair market rates to qualified low income tenants, with a subsidy administered by the program. Out of pocket cost for some renters can be as low as $20 per month. The program has without question saved many local families from being homeless.
As with so many things in Santa Cruz, these two apartment complexes have been hiding behind their true identity. The Tannery is called an “Artist Live/Work” apartment complex. But, 99 of the 100 units are subsidised and a potential tenant does not have to be an artist. The property management “prefers” to have artists live there, but does not turn away non-artist applications. The city made all of us believe the Tannery was going to be the Mecca of local creative expression. The Tannery website defines the complex as “dedicated to providing an affordable, accessible and sustainable home for Santa Cruz County artists and arts..” It’s not. Many residents are not artists, they’re just trying to survive the local out of control cost of living. The Tannery is just another low income housing project in disguise. The same can be said about 1010 Pacific Ave., when construction began we were told the complex would be for professionals living and working in the downtown area, but it’s now turned into another last resort for low income families and individuals.
Let’s call these apartment complexes by their true name and stop pretending we are a city without issues. The Tannery is low income housing, or as other cities call it, the projects.
Creating high density housing projects for low income families and individuals will not solve anything. With time, those areas, due to lack of funds, land use and socioeconomic factors, will deteriorate. We are seeing that deterioration slowly occurring.
No Leadership, No Direction
I was driving on Broadway when I passed up a group of about 40 protesters holding signs and chanting. They were gathered at the future location of Hyatt Place Hotel.
The signs read “Save This Tree” and other demands to keep the crews from cutting down a tree to make way for the new hotel. It had been a while since I had seen so many people protesting with that level of passion. I’m sure the tree appreciated it. What made me shake my head in disbelief was how this protest was being held right across the street from where Shannon Collins was murdered in 2012. I had never seen any of these protesters before, never in this neighborhood I lived in for almost 10 years. They never showed up protesting the high crime rate, the lack of signage at our crosswalks or the never ending trail of prostitutes. But they all showed up to save a tree.
I love trees too, but I couldn’t help thinking of all the issues Santa Cruz is currently facing and how our energy is being focused on pointless protests to save a tree or as a recent group on Ocean and Water was protesting, national gun laws. Santa Cruz needs to stay focused.
Is Santa Cruz Safe?
So, my question is: Do you feel safer in Santa Cruz today than you did three years ago?
Do you feel safe? Do you think twice about leaving something visible in your car? Do you head out to a city park and wonder if the park will be taken over by transients? Do you walk on the beach and wonder if there are dirty needles hidden in the sand?
Most people I speak to don’t feel safe.
So who is Santa Cruz? Because it’s not Madyson. It’s not the innocent, carefree and happy town we keep hoping to be. Santa Cruz is hiding. Hiding behind it’s gilded housing projects, pretending to be something it isn’t. We pretend everything is functioning correctly, while our leadership hopes we don’t notice their failure. Our only resources for information are sleeping at the wheel, more interested in dollars and click counts, with no regard to actual current events that matter.
The next murder will happen. Another innocent Santa Cruz resident will be killed. Cue the candle light vigils, the 300 or so people marching, the fund raisers for the victim’s family, the city in disbelief. Then, we’ll go right back to our routine. Waiting for the next senseless and isolated incident. Nothing changes.
After every high profile murder I always believe Santa Cruz will take the opportunity to start fixing things, but I’ve started to lose faith. Santa Cruz hasn’t changed anything in the past 3 years to make people safer. Business owners are trapped in a transient friendly city having to protect their store fronts and employees on their own. Children and women are being violated by people we expect to trust… surf instructors, grocery clerks, cab drivers and neighbors.
Shannon was walking back on what we are told are safe Santa Cruz streets and a random man with a history of violence attacked her. Det. Butler was doing her job, interviewing a man who was suspected of sexually assaulting another Santa Cruz woman when the detective and her partner were murdered. Madyson knew her killer, she trusted him and never expected to be harmed by who she thought was a friend.
It’s not isolated or an aberration. It’s a trend. In order to stop it Santa Cruz must make logical, unpopular choices.
I truly don’t believe Santa Cruz is prepared or willing to make those changes.