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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!

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