Santa Cruz Good Times

Saturday
Sep 20th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Filling the Gaps with First Alarm

news1The City of Santa Cruz experiments with employing private security to help prevent crime

They stand on street corners, roam Pacific Avenue, cruise the San Lorenzo River levee in trucks, and sit idly by in parks, doing what they do best: deterring crime.

In the past few years, First Alarm, a private security company based in Aptos, has become a growing component in the City of Santa Cruz’s public safety strategy.

“We launched it with some pilot programs downtown,” says Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) Deputy Chief Steve Clark, “and then we expanded into the Harvey West neighborhood to deal with the issues around the Homeless Services Center and the negative impacts we were seeing, and then we expanded to our levees, our beach area, and now to the parks.”

The city first employed only a few First Alarm guards to establish a presence of authority downtown three years ago, but when the guards’ presence proved effective in discouraging crime, the city chose to employ more of the First Alarm security guards in other areas like at the City Hall campus and Downtown Library Branch.

“[Before], we had an uptick in certain illegal behaviors and threatening behaviors toward city staff,” says Assistant to the City Manager Scott Collins. “People would be smoking, congregating in groups, drinking, and displaying threatening behaviors to people who would pass by City Hall, particularly in the evenings. Being that this is the hub of city government, you want to have a welcoming environment.”

The city spent $287,295 on First Alarm security guards in 2011, and, in 2012, the amount increased to $403,836. This may seem like a large sum to give to non-city staff, but with this amount, the city employs 16 First Alarm guards (with two alternates for a sum of 18) in comparison with the two or three full-fledged police officers the same amount would provide.

“It’s not to say that one for one they are the same,” says Collins. “A police officer has a lot more tools at their disposal, and has far more training and experience than a security guard would. But having those extra eyes and ears in the community has benefited the city in terms of increased safety, and has returned public spaces they patrol to the community, so that these resources can be enjoyed by all members of the public.”

First Alarm guards do not hold much more power than a normal citizen does. The SCPD trains them in observation techniques and conflict management strategies, but they have the same arresting power as any citizen and cannot issue citations. Aside from wearing a uniform, the biggest difference is that each First Alarm guard has a direct line to the SCPD’s police frequency, which means they can communicate faster with authorities to dispel problematic situations throughout the city more effectively.

In addition, Santa Cruz Mayor Hillary Bryant says, “These private security guards can handle many minor code infractions without police assistance. They free up our police to respond to higher priority service calls.”

In a sense, the guards are a walking 911 service that aims to provide a comforting feeling of authority to the citizens of Santa Cruz. But not everyone appreciates them.

news1-2The city spent $403,836 on First Alarm security guards last year, up from $287,295 in 2011. A homeless man in San Lorenzo Park who preferred to remain anonymous told GT his feelings about the guards. “All they are here to do is harass the homeless. They’re trying to run us out of town,” he said. “There is one guard downtown who tries to tell us how to live, and what to do, and that’s wrong.”

Seventy-year-old Janet Fardette, a member of “the Leveelies,” a group of citizens who have cleaned up litter around the levee and San Lorenzo Park every weekend since 2009, welcomes their presence.

“Four years ago it was not unusual for us to pick up, in one weekend, over a hundred liquor containers down there, and last weekend I think we picked up nine,” says Fardette. “It makes a difference with all the vehicles driving through, and First Alarm is part of it. They send a constant message that we are not going to put up with this stuff anymore.”

In February of this year, the city council amended the ordinance that banned private vehicles from driving on the beach, through city parks, and down the levee trail to allow other city-contracted vehicles, like First Alarm trucks, to access these areas. The decision came as part of the city’s response to intensifying outcry over local crime and drug use.

“First Alarm Security vehicle patrols are proving to provide greater flexibility and a quicker response time as compared to foot or bike patrols,” explains Bryant.

The city council voted 5-1 in favor of amending the ordinance at its Feb. 26 meeting. The only dissenting vote came from Councilmember Micah Posner. Posner says he is all for enhancing safety within the city, but believes that allowing trucks on a foot and bike path may not be the safest and best option on the levee trail, which, unlike many who praise the use of the trucks, he says he uses every day.

“I literally see people jump in the bushes when the trucks come by,” says Posner who was previously the director of sustainable transportation advocacy organization People Power. “It comes down to a matter of scale. You want to be at the appropriate scale for the population that you’re dealing with, and on the river levee that means biking or walking.”

Pedestrians’ opinion of First Alarm’s presence on the levee trail varies. Santa Cruz local Michael Ferrer, whose dog takes him for a walk down the levee trail each day, approves of the trucks.

“I honestly think they’re killer,” Ferrer says. “I just saw them busting a drunk who was laid out right in the middle of the bridge, and without them that guy would be sitting there for who knows how long.”

Twenty-one-year-old cyclist William Charles Bloom Van Dusen, a resident of Santa Cruz, bike polo enthusiast, and frequent flyer on the levee trail, has a different position.

“The First Alarm trucks on the levee trail are obnoxious and superfluous,” he says. “To me, their main impact seems to be blocking the path at its narrowest points.”

Clark feels the trucks are necessary to establish an additional visibility factor.

“I want them there,” he says. “I want them visible. I want the community to know that they’re there, and I want them to be accessible to the community if there is a need to assist someone.”

City officials are deciding upon the future of their utilization of private security in the city as the experiment continues, but there is no timeline for how long the city will continue working with First Alarm Security. So far, most officials feel that the use of First Alarm guards is a cost-effective and useful deterrent of crime throughout Santa Cruz, but some, like Posner, think that a shift to city-based positions would be more beneficial.

“The public version of First Alarm guards is called Community Service Officers or CSOs,” Posner says. “CSOs are unionized and have permanent work, so they’re more inclined to live in the community, and they are likely to apply to be police officers. They are more expensive, but I think you get what you pay for.”

There are currently six budgeted positions for CSOs, but only four are filled, with an additional one in the process of being filled. CSOs can issue citations and are employees of the SCPD, unlike the First Alarm guards.

“The Community Service Officer staff has been significantly reduced over the years,” says Clark. “There was a time when we had as many as 12 to 15 Community Service Officers assisting us in different roles in the police department.”

Clark says he is constantly evaluating the performance of the First Alarm guards, and says he will continue to implement them downtown, in the Harvey West neighborhood, on the beaches, and the San Lorenzo River levee.

“As long as it continues to be an effective and appropriate measure, and also continues to be good management in terms of being fiscally responsible, and as long as there is a need for it,” says Clark, “That’s the litmus test for me. As soon as it quits being any one of those things, we’ll look at other alternatives.”

Comments (2)Add Comment
Privatization of public safety will lead to expensive, ineffective service
written by John Colby, May 11, 2013
Privatizing public services is sweeping the country — this agenda, fostered by rich individuals, is supported by both Democratic and Republican politicians. The free market does not operate more efficiently, especially in providing fundamental services, than the government does.

Outsourcing security to private firms — disastrous in Iraq and Afghanistan — will lead to more expensive, less effective public safety. Moreover, these private companies are not directly accountable to the public: they operate in a quasi governmental netherworld.
The future...
written by Greg Martin, April 10, 2013
I applaud the City of Santa Cruz for using First Alarm to supplement the police force. Thank you also First Alarm. I hope they work towards this as part of a permanent strategy. Micah Posner is inaccurate when he says you get what you pay for. Public employees do not compete in a competitive market, retirement and medical benefits are far in excess of those for private employees. The City Council should add more First Alarm patrols to achieve the right balance for success!

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

Catwalk on the Wild Side

Meet the artists and designers behind this year’s edition of FashionART, SantaCruz’s most outrageous fashion show

 

The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program

 

Watch List

From Google to the government to data brokers, why your privacy is now a thing of the past

 

The Peace Equation

Sunday is the United Nations’ International Day of Peace, a global peace-building day when nations, leaders, governments, communities and individuals are invited to end conflict, cease hostilities, creat 24 hours of non-violence and promote goodwill. Monday is Autumn equinox as the Sun enters Libra (right relations with all of life). The Soul Year now begins. We work in the dark part of the year (Persephone underground) preparing for the new light of winter solstice. Tuesday to Wednesday is the Virgo new moon festival. We know two things about peace. “The absence of war does not signify peace.” And “Peace is an ongoing process.” In its peace-building emphasis, the UNIDP, through education, attempts to create a “culture of peace, understanding and tolerance”. Esoterically we are reminded of the peace equation: “Intentions for goodwill (and acting upon this intention) create right relations with all earth’s kingdoms which create (the ongoing process of) peace on earth.” At noon on Sunday, in all time zones, millions of participating groups will observe a moment of silence for peace on earth. Bells will ring, candles will be lit, and doves released as the New Group of World Servers recite the Great Invocation (humanity’s mantram of direction). To connect with others around the world see www.cultureofpeace.org    Let us join together with the mother (Virgo). Goodwill to all, let peace prevail on earth. The dove is the symbol for the day.
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Sweet Treats

Local cannabis bakers win award for cookies

 

What fashion trends do you want to see, or not see?

Santa Cruz  |  High School Guidance Counselor

 

Best of Santa Cruz County

The 2013 Santa Cruz County Readers' Poll and Critics’ Picks It’s our biggest issue of the year, and in it, your votes—more than 6,500 of them—determined the winners of The Best of Santa Cruz County Readers’ Poll. New to the long list of local restaurants, shops and other notables that captured your interest: Best Beer Selection, Best Locally Owned Business, Best Customer Service and Best Marijuana Dispensary. In the meantime, many readers were ever so chatty online about potential new categories. Some of the suggestions that stood out: Best Teen Program and Best Web Design/Designer. But what about: Dog Park, Church, Hotel, Local Farm, Therapist (I second that!) or Sports Bar—not to be confused with Bra. Our favorite suggestion: Best Act of Kindness—one reader noted Café Gratitude and the free meals it offered to the Santa Cruz Police Department in the aftermath of recent crimes. Perhaps some of these can be woven into next year’s ballot, so stay tuned. In the meantime, enjoy the following pages and take note of our Critics’ Picks, too, beginning on page 91. A big thanks for voting—and for reading—and an even bigger congratulations to all of the winners. Enjoy.  -Greg Archer, EditorBest of Santa Cruz County Readers’ Poll INDEX

 

Santa Clara Wine Trail

My memories of growing up in England include my mother pouring port after Sunday dinner—and sometimes a glass of sherry before dinner. My family didn’t drink much wine back then, but we certainly made up for it with the port and sherry.