If it Bleeds, it Leads

From the anecdotal evidence I’ve been receiving over the past few weeks, it appears that a crime explosion is underway in our lovely beachside community. Emails, screen grabs, Nextdoor posts and sharing on local social media indicate that crime in Santa Monica is rising and that the level of fear among many long-time residents is correspondingly on the rise. Preliminary statistics show that crime rates rising throughout the Los Angeles region, and we have not been immune to that increase in Santa Monica. However, a 1.2 percent increase in the City of Los Angeles in 2017 seems minor in comparison to that in Santa Monica. From historically low rates over the past few years, the surge may be bringing our crime rates up, but they are still lower than in “the good old days.”

For most residents, the historical record doesn’t matter much. The imperative becomes what they feel; on their street corners, in their parks, and in the neighborhoods around them. It seems as though the homeless population is becoming more aggressive, that the Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD) is becoming more fatalistic about the increase in crime and threats to safety, and that we are all helpless in the face of hundreds of calls to them for assistance throughout the day. Several emails I have received have suggested that our Police Officers seem to be discouraging citizens from having the committers of crime arrested, noting that “they will be back on our streets tomorrow” and “you’ll have to go to court to testify against them.” Residents and neighborhood groups are concerned. Have our great police officers decided they are powerless to stop the incidents that cause distress among our citizenry? Have the City Council and City Manager’s Office become so enamored with development opportunities and commerce that they have forgotten about the safety that residents need in Santa Monica?

First, we need to dispel the rumor that we’re still a lovely beachside community. We have always been a city that had a somewhat seedy undertone to it. Some of Raymond Chandler’s crime noir novels featured that aspect of Santa Monica. The Pier was very scary a few decades ago, and we’ve always had a transient homeless population moving through.

Developers, with the tacit approval of our city council, have actively sought to add density to our town. With more people, a corresponding increase in criminal activity has occurred. The SMPD points out that the early release of felons from county and state jails has entered the mix, as has the increasing number of mentally ill individuals who have been unable to receive timely treatment for their conditions. Sadly, veterans return from our wars damaged and unable to find housing and mental health support through the Veterans Administration, and they become homeless as well.

Our residents must continue to report incidents to the SMPD switchboard and demand a response to each report promptly. They need to feel confident that Acting Chief Semko’s fine officers will follow up diligently on every call made to them. The SMPD might need to revert to eight patrol districts in our city. The switch to four districts three years ago means car patrols must cross the Metro train tracks consistently to cover their designated areas when not responding to a crime. The visibility of our men and women in blue helps deter crime. From casual observation, it appears that our officers are seldom able to patrol our neighborhoods with regularity. Instead, they are rushing from crime to crime without a breath. Many are working overtime without an adequate break, causing mental and physical fatigue to cope with the ever-increasing amount of car accidents, auto/pedestrian incidents and the crime that is the product of a denser downtown.

Some residents have nicknamed the Expo Line the “Crime Train,” and the Vons supermarket on Broadway and Lincoln has become “Crime Vons.” Incidents of crime in downtown including vandalism, assaults, burglaries, and larcenies have increased. The uptick in crime percentage is hovering in the high teens throughout downtown Santa Monica. These trends are disturbing. To combat the added crime, the SMPD has diverted resources away from our neighborhoods and parks to add undercover and uniformed units downtown. When I walked into the Vons on Lincoln, workers began to tell me stories about shoplifting waves during late night hours and horror stories about the behavior of some unsavory characters that enter the store. Employees are battered and disturbed. They say our police respond, but often admit there is little they can do to turn the tide.

Our City Attorney, Lane Dilg, must empower the Police Department’s enforcement efforts, and our City Council must stress the necessity of keeping every neighborhood safe, not just downtown. Police cars must patrol our neighborhoods consistently. Visible police and great street lighting help to deter crimes of opportunity. Public Safety Officers must be positioned at our parks in need. Santa Monica needs to supplement the Sheriff’s Department’s officers at our train stations with foot patrols. The “Crime Train” label is a fallacy. Criminals arrive by bicycle, car, foot, and bus as well. However, perception often rules. The train stations and the neighborhoods surrounding them must have ample police presence. As more serious traffic incidents require a police response, officers are pulled off patrol, many times for hours, as they investigate the latest pedestrian hit by an automobile on our city’s overloaded streets.

All of us know that Santa Monica is a hard city to police. Two figurative rivers end here: the Santa Monica Freeway and the Expo Line bring thousands to our city each day. Most are here for the beach, for shopping, and to breathe our fresh air. But the few that are here to commit crimes need to know that we will not turn a blind eye to them. Our City Council, City Manager, City Attorney and our Police need to recommit to protecting our neighborhoods.

As residents of this city, we’re probably lucky that there is not a unified media outlet in Santa Monica that would exploit our rise in crime for their gain. The pejorative headline, “If it bleeds, it leads,” is not one that we want our splintered media ever to have to use. Let’s tame this crime wave, now.

Phil Brock for SMa.r.t (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)