Balancing Act: Compassion and Accountability


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Over the past few weeks, city staff worked diligently to clean up a toxic site where homeless were camping.  The public health issues were immense, and the courts approved our plan to offer people a healthier place to sleep in a manner that honored the Martin v. Boise decision. I cannot describe the incredible, all-consuming, around the clock effort from multiple departments to move houseless people from this dangerous environment to one that is safer.

In speaking to most everyone at the Ross camp multiple times, I found three categories of people: those who need and want help, those incapable of decision making and those who reject assistance choosing to live “free.”

More than 50 people accepted help and moved to a safe and controlled space at 1220 River Street. There are still 50 plus spaces available at the Salvation Army and VFW.  Last time at the River Street project we saw numerous people thrive, become healthier and move on with life-either going home, going into treatment programs and sober living environments, or getting housing.  While this is not the direct responsibility (statute or budget) of the city or its staff, serving others is an incredible honor, worth the effort, and why most of us go into public service in the first place.  Community and staff have however experienced fatigue from trying to work with those who desire to live without rules.

Those who chose to violate our laws and community norms (ordinances) must be held accountable.  Santa Cruz cannot be a free-for-all. Santa Cruz PD will continue to do everything within our power to cite and arrest those responsible.  There are three parts to accountability: apprehension, prosecution, and sentencing. We control 1/3 of the process-apprehension, and most of our contacts will result in citations as the jail is full.

Our volume of cites and arrests overwhelms the judicial system, so we need your thoughts on how to hold people accountable. For example, after failing to appear on five infraction citations, the person is sent to collections-this lacks real consequence.  Of the 7,000 citations written, more than 95% of defendants fail to appear.

I recently asked our employees their thoughts on how to hold people accountable? The lack of consequence is a great source of frustration for officers, CSO’s and Rangers.  I encourage you to email me with your suggestions on how we may lawfully hold people accountable:

The third group needs County help.  Many in this cohort are mentally ill and drug addicted. They are incapable of making decisions and are the responsibility of the County government.  Funding for these services flows from the state and the federal government to the county.  It stops there. Those in need are not quite incompetent enough to qualify for a mental health hold, but certainly need oversite, assistance and careful monitoring.  It’s a tough job and resource intensive. There are also more than 1,100 intravenous drug users who use more than one million syringes annually.  Without the county addressing the epidemic of addiction in Santa Cruz, we cannot in the short term or long term solve our homeless problem.

In the meantime, SCPD projected likely displacement of crime from the camp, and we are proactively policing those historical hot spots, looking proactively for crimes.  The clean-up continues until there are real solutions for all three categories of homelessness: housing, mental health, and drug rehab.

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