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Problematic "Public Safety" Recommendations to be Presented to City Council 12/3
The Santa Cruz Public Safety Task Force has completed their work and is presenting their recommendations to City Council on Tues, 12/3 7pm. The recommendations include some positive, proven ideas like funding drug treatment and after-school youth programs. However the report also recommends ideas which are not evidence-based, such as misdemeanor charges for multiple infractions, restricting the needle exchange program, and increasing the size of the police force based on sloppy statistics. Come to City Hall on 12/3 to let the Council know this report does not represent a community consensus.
The Santa Cruz City Council created the Public Safety Task Force in response to a public perception of rising violent crime, including the shocking murders of officers Butler and Baker. Mayor Hilary Bryant picked 15 citizens to form the Task Force, which met regularly for months and will be presenting their findings to the City Council on December 3rd, 7pm. Their report and policy recommendations are available online here:
Addressing a wide range of issues, the report states that Santa Cruz´ property and violent crime rates are more akin to those of inner cities than other cities of comparable size. Particular areas of interest are drug addiction; alcohol-fueled violence; gang culture among young men; and a large per capita homeless population, which in conjunction with addiction and/or mental illness “may result in public nuisance and criminal behaviors”.
Charged with using an evidence-based approach, the Task Force recommends many positive, proven ideas including better funding for drug treatment and intervention programs, after-school youth programs, and environmental design changes like improved lighting in high-crime areas.
Unfortunately, the Task Force report includes many other ideas which are not evidence-based, including tougher sentencing such as misdemeanor charges for multiple infractions, restricting the needle exchange program, increasing the size of the police force based on sloppy statistics, and attacking marijuana cultivation and use.
A group of concerned citizens, including Steve Schnaar, Peter Klotz-Chamberlin, Rick Longinotti, Stacey Falls, Mary Howe, Doug Engfer, & Brent Adams, sat down to review the material and came up with a list of concerns about the Task Force recommendations:
1. Inaccurate statistics:
A. Statistics suggesting the SCPD is understaffed
The report states that an average police force for a city of 60,000 is about 140 sworn officers, in contrast to the current SCPD force of 94, with 6 vacancies. They recommend we increase our police to meet the average. Yet their number is not based on actual police forces of other similarly-sized cities. Rather, their method was to simply divide the total US population by total number of police. Looking at 14 cities in Northern and Central California with population counts between 55,000 and 65,000 (Santa Cruz' population is 62,000), Santa Cruz has the largest number of sworn police officer positions in its budget. The next highest is Palo Alto with 87; the lowest is Rocklin with 52; and the average is 70.
B. Statistics connecting the Homeless Services Center to arrests
The report also states that, "Calls for service [to the SCPD] are at an all-time high, and individuals that self-affiliated with the Homeless Services Center (by providing 115 Coral Street address at the time of arrest) accounted for about 40% of arrests and 30% of citations in 2012." In fact these numbers reflect a broader category of "homeless" individuals, including three different address designations (115 Coral Street, "transient" or "homeless"). The numbers definitely do not refer only to people self-identifying as connected to 115 Coral.
2. Unscientific and counterproductive calls to restrict needle exchange programs:
While we all agree it is a good goal to reduce and hopefully eliminate the existence of littered syringes, the Task Force recommendations to relocate Syringe Services Program (SSP) outside of residential areas, to prevent additional syringe exchanges from operating within the City, and to insist on a 1 to 1 exchange policy are not based on any evidence that they would in fact reduce the number of littered needles.
Alex Kral, PhD, a public health expert with years of research on syringe exchange programs, and currently Director of the Urban Health Program for RTI International in San Francisco, visited Santa Cruz last April to participate in one of the Forums on Community Safety and Compassion. His findings, based on studies from various cities over more than a decade, found that syringe exchange programs (most of which do not use a 1 to 1 policy) decrease syringe sharing, reduce littered needles, and do not contribute to more drug use or young people starting to inject. For example in San Francisco, which has a robust needle exchange program, they found that 13% of users disposed of needles improperly, while in Miami, which has no needle exchange program, they found 95% of users disposed of needles improperly.
Here is a link to a RTI article showing that needle exchanges in San Francisco reduce the threat to the public of littered needles:
3. Problematic assumptions and policy recommendations with respect to homelessness:
One Task Force recommendation is the creation of "a specialty court model for substance abusers, veterans, mentally ill and/or homeless offenders". While we support the use of specialty courts designed to help people connect with helpful services, it is important for us as a community to recognize that lack of housing, substance abuse, and mental illness are separate issues. While overlap obviously occurs, a careful approach recognizes these as separate issues and does not assume that the same responses apply to people suffering each of these situations.
The Task Force also recommends increased punishments for infractions associated with lack of housing. Of particular note are misdemeanors charges for multiple citations of illegal camping, and for defecating in public. As human beings everyone must sleep and relieve their wastes, and to make a crime out of these necessary biological activities is disrespectful, dehumanizing, and bound to clog the courts with a problem that needs to be resolved elsewhere. There is also no evidence to suggest that such punishments would actually improve public health and safety.
It is also notable that throughout the Task Force document homelessness is mentioned repeatedly as a threat to others, but there is no mention about threats to homeless individuals themselves. Homeless individuals are also part of the public, and are very vulnerable to theft, attacks, and sexual assaults. However these public safety recommendations seem to only make homeless individuals less safe.
4. Harsher sentencing is ineffective, and contradictory to State mandates:
We question the Task Force recommendation for harsher punishments, including that misdemeanor warrants be issued after three failures to address citations. Given the targeted population, it's unclear whether a misdemeanor, with its threat of jail time, will be an effective deterrent to the behaviors the Task Force is hoping to curb. The resolution of nuisance behaviors through a focus on incarceration prevents the community from focusing on effective and proven solutions to these problems.
On this subject, the Task Force Report appears not to heed the advice of its guest panelists: "Universally, panelists were adamant that funding of prevention and intervention programs within schools, County Health and Human Services, treatment non-profits, and the criminal justice system, are more cost-effective in reducing crime compared to incarceration." (Task Force Report - http://www.cityofsantacruz.com/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=35125)
Here are a few articles on studies finding that harsher punishments do not reduce recidivism, and may in fact be counter-productive:
5. Cracking down on marijuana cultivation is unsupported by evidence:
The Report recommends a ban of any marijuana cultivation in residential areas. In addition to violating the State´s medical marijuana provisions, this recommendation is unsupported by evidence as to effectiveness in addressing the social problems under Task Force purview.
After decades of a costly War on Drugs which is failing to curb drug use and abuse, the national trend has been towards drug policy reform, including the voter-approved legalization of marijuana last year in Washington and Colorado. In fact the US population now favors marijuana legalization by a 58 to 39 margin:
6. Domestic violence and sexual assault:
The Task Force convened subsequent to the killings of two police officers while they were investigating sexual predatory behavior. Though domestic violence and sexual assault represent a large share of the violence in our community, the only recommendations regarding those problems are to increase "community education" and to collaborate with the school system "to ensure all youth are educated" in those topics. We urge a more thorough consideration of prevention programs to address this problem.
7. Funding recommendations fall short:
We applaud the Report for its emphasis on reducing criminal recidivism. However, we are concerned that the report is lacking in recommending City funds for that purpose, relying instead on the County "to insure that proven, evidence-based interventions and treatment programs ...are adequately funded". The Report notes that "The Serial Inebriate Program (SIP) and Drug Court are successful models for treatment and recidivism reduction, yet remain underfunded". Without the City offering ways that these programs could be funded, we are concerned that the status quo will remain unchanged.
8. Assertions unsupported by cited facts, and terms not clearly defined:
The report includes many assertions which are not supported by cited facts. For example, the report states that "drug addiction is rampant", without any statistics, nor any effort to define addiction or distinguish between addiction and use. The report also uses the phrase "high-risk alcohol outlet", stating that we have more than is typical for a town of our size. Yet there is no data comparing the prevalence of such outlets here to comparable cities. Likewise, the report describes tourism as the "bedrock" of the city's economy, without citing any numbers relating to how much economic activity is tourism-based. These are but a few examples to demonstrate the lack of vigor one would hope for in a document of this gravity.
SAMPLE LETTER TO CITY COUNCIL (citycouncil [at] cityofsantacruz.com):
To the Santa Cruz City Council:
We appreciate the hard work of the City’s Public Safety Task Force and admire the time and dedication provided by our fellow citizens. We applaud the Task Force’s widely-supported recommendations for increased drug treatment programs and for an enhanced commitment to positive youth programs. We look forward to working with other community members to bring these recommendations to fruition.
We are concerned that at least a few of the recommendations represent an unproductive approach to public safety. We support an approach to needle exchange that is logical and evidence-based rather than one resting on the unproven assertion that a needle exchange is the cause of our community’s improperly disposed needles. We support a positive approach to addressing the problematic impacts of homelessness rather than one that relies so heavily on punitive measures that will lead to additional costly incarcerations for minor infractions. We support a collaborative approach to working with the court system and county government rather than a demanding, one-sided approach.
Because the Task Force recommendations, taken as a whole, do not consistently represent the kind of evidence-based and positive approach that we expect for our community, we urge you to be careful and selective as you consider adoption of those recommendations.