Record number of calls for service help police work, but crime is still up
Earlier this month, there was a wager going around the Santa Cruz Police Department on when they would hit 100,000 calls for service—an all-time record number of calls in a year. Whoever guessed the day the record would be broken stood to win a cup of coffee, compliments of Deputy Chief Steve Clark.
On Thursday, Dec. 13, the department hit that 100,000 calls mark, which means Clark owes Chief of Police Kevin Vogel one cup of joe.
The record high is 9,516 more calls than were received last year and 18,504 more than in 2010, representing almost a 20 percent increase over the two-year period.
General manager for the Santa Cruz Regional 911 center Dennis Kidd says he believes all law enforcement agencies, inside and outside the county, are taking more calls for service. The call center, which is located on the DeLaveaga Golf Course, right next to the 17th hole, dispatches calls for all of Santa Cruz County and, as of October 2011, San Benito County and the City of Hollister, as well.
Call takers work 10 to 12-hour shifts, doing “hammer phones,” Kidd says—answering one call after the other the entire time. “It's nonstop,” he says.
To handle the increase in calls, Kidd says they are working toward getting three more call takers in addition to their current two, which he says will be a significant increase in support.
The steady increase in calls for SCPD service corresponds with a 6 percent increase in crime across all categories in Santa Cruz in 2012.
SCPD's most recent Uniform Crime Report, which is the information they report to the FBI, shows robbery down 31 percent this year, aggravated assault down 7 percent and burglaries down 6 percent. But there has been a 46 percent increase in auto theft, a 9 percent increase in larceny and a 200 percent increase in homicide, Clark says.
There were three murders this year, compared to just one last year, which does a lot to skew the crime statistic upward, he says.
The first murder this year—the May killing of business owner Shannon Collins by a transient with mental health issues—contributed heavily to increased community activism about crime, says Clark.
“She was simply walking down the street—a victim of nonsensical, random violence by a crazy person, which goes right through the heart of the community,” Clark says. Collins' death was a threshold event for Santa Cruz, renewing community concern, he adds.
Also this year, there was the Aug. 8 drive-by shooting at Bixby Street and San Lorenzo Boulevard that killed 13-year-old Joey Mendoza, who police say was known to be involved with gang activity, and the murder of a homeless man by five other homeless people at an illegal campsite at Neary Lagoon, Clark says.
More recently, problems with trash and syringes along West Cliff Drive have incited community members to organize, conduct cleanups and contact the police more often.
Callers are providing better information than in the past, which helps police to prevent crimes from occurring and sometimes helps them catch perpetrators in the act.
“I think our callers have become much more educated,” Clark says. “They're calling with good descriptions of both the activity as well as the perpetrators, and they're calling more frequently.”
However, Lt. Dan Flippo says that while the increase
in calls is helpful, it can result in delayed responses to less serious incidents.
“The more calls we have, the more our resources are taxed,” he says. “Officers have less free time to do more proactive stuff. But we're getting more calls earlier on with more information, which allow us to quickly apprehend people and prevent crime, instead of just reacting.”
Flippo says that the department prioritizes calls concerning crimes in progress.
Typical calls, Clark says, are about a suspicious person in the neighborhood looking into car windows or into neighbors' houses or sometimes a suspicious car cruising the streets.
“Often the information isn't something we can immediately act on, but a day or two down the line, if there's a crime that's been committed, it helps us with the probability factor because we can go back and pull that information or it helps us be in the area and mitigate the opportunity,” Clark says.
Nine times out of 10, Clark says, the people who are breaking in and stealing have a drug dependency they are trying to feed. He believes this fact reflects a shift in the homeless population that has occurred over the past year.
“We're seeing a much younger crowd, a much more aggressive crowd, [and] a much more drug-dependent crowd,” he says.
Kim Stoner, who is a part of the 40-member Oregon Street Watch Group as well as the Lighthouse Cowell Neighbors group, which has about 200 members, says he and many others feel that problems with transients and drug use have gotten much worse over the past year.
He says he has noticed a big migration of homeless people into his neighborhood on the lower Westside in recent months.
On a recent Friday, Stoner says he found a used syringe, a burnt book of matches and spoon with heroin residue on the corner outside his house. He took a photo of the mess and shared it on the Internet with his neighborhood groups.
“It's a way for the neighborhood group to communicate and put everyone on notice,” he says. Clark says it makes sense that the homeless population has moved into new areas following the cleanups along the levee, and a police-led effort earlier in 2012 to clear out homeless camps.
“It contributes to the dispersal,” he says.
To work on managing problem zones more efficiently, Clark is re-assessing police beat zoning, which hasn't changed in the entire 27 years that he's worked for the police department. His aim is to reformat officers' areas of patrol so their beats focus on certain types of problems.
Beat zones, which they have never assessed scientifically, will be designated by assessing the level of calls for service and workload in each region in order to distribute resources more effectively.
“I'll be looking at different configurations to maximize efficiency and even-out the responsibility for problem zones,” he says.
Both Clark and Michael Becker, co-president of Take Back Santa Cruz (TBSC), say the increase in calls to the police is largely attributable to the growing numbers in community action groups.
Becker says people in groups like TBSC are communicating with each other much more closely and becoming more willing to call police. “If it looks suspicious, you need to trust your judgment and make that call,” he says.
Clark says groups like TBSC have upped the ante recently in terms of community engagement and helped police to do their job.
“The police department alone cannot solve the crime issues in the community,” Clark says. “It takes a community engagement philosophy and active participation.”
While the wager at SCPD was for fun, Clark says it was also a means of maintaining their awareness that the workload is increasing.
“Now,” he says, referring to the rising demand for police service, “how are we going to deal with it?”
After the wager on when 100,000 calls would be reached ended on Dec. 13, a new wager sprang up at the department: who can guess the closest number to the total number of calls SCPD will receive for the entire year? Clark’s bet is that it will be about 105,000.
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