Fed up with reports that crime and homelessness are putting a damper on the Santa Barbara vacation experience, tourism industry leaders stormed City Hall earlier this month to ask for more cops on the city’s streets.
Despite a projected $2.7 million shortfall in the city’s general fund next year, the Santa Barbara Police Department proposed a budget that would add one full-time sworn officer and six part-time community service officers. Three outreach workers would assist with homeless issues.
By using funds from its redevelopment agency, the three-year project won’t dip into the city’s general fund but still expands the police force, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider told the Business Times. “Even with this budget, we’re ramping up, not sizing down, our police presence,” she said.
But that may not be enough. At a special City Council meeting on May 16, business leaders joined the chorus of residents and community activists asking the city to put as many as 150 cops on the streets.
Santa Barbara currently has 137 police officer positions budgeted, with about 125 actual police officers out on duty.
According to several media reports, meeting attendees demanded the city return police levels to what they were in the 1990s, when about 150 officers patrolled the streets.
Others said outreach — not law enforcement — programs need more funding.
Tony Romasanta, a Santa Barbara attorney and owner of the luxury waterfront Harbor View Inn, was at that meeting and advocated for the city to ramp up its police force. Romasanta, who became a partner at the Harbor View in the early ’70s, told the Business Times that he’s seen a steady increase over the years in the number of negative reports coming from hotel guests.
While he said he doesn’t keep statistics on those reports, more guests leave comments these days saying they feel threatened by aggressive panhandlers downtown or are worried about reports of gang-related crime along the Milpas Street corridor. “What has happened over the past 10 years is that there is a perception by most people that crime has increased,” Romasanta said.
Several media outlets that attended the May 17 City Council meeting said Chief of Police Cam Sanchez showed statistics that crime is actually down this year compared to last.
But Romasanta said it doesn’t matter so much if the actual statistics say otherwise — if tourists don’t think of Santa Barbara as a low-crime, picture-perfect beach town, they’ll stop coming. “It’s all about perception,” Romasanta said, “and that’s where police presence counts.”
Laura McIver, general manager of the downtown Canary Hotel, told the Business Times guests have complained about being hassled when they’re out shopping or going to the beach. “I’ve seen more of the transient homeless, more of the young 20-something homeless who’ve made a lifestyle decision to be that way,” she said.
McIver sits on the board of the Santa Barbara Visitors and Convention Bureau, the industry group for the county’s $1.5 billion tourism industry.
As a board member, McIver has heard stories from other hoteliers — particularly those with inns on the waterfront — about vagrants peeking in guest windows, entering hotel common areas or sneaking in to enjoy the continental breakfast, she said.
“A [police] presence in the main tourist corridors certainly has a good effect, whether they have to arrest people or not. There tends to be less wrongdoing if there are regular officers on a beat patrol,” McIver said.
The visitor’s bureau has been more vocal lately in demanding city leaders take the issue seriously, she said. “We’ve been encouraging the City Council to really look at their budgets and see where dollars are being unnecessarily spent.”
The city will decide police staffing levels when it approves the budget in late June.
Schneider said that public safety is a top concern. “I take the business community’s comments very seriously,” she said. “What we want for residents and visitors is to enjoy Santa Barbara and feel safe. If there are concerns out there, we need to address them.”
But she’s also said that she’s cautious about committing to the long-term expenses of staffing up the Police Department, especially if it means cutting back other city services.
McIver said that crime and homeless issues need to be dealt with as soon as possible. “We’ve had guests say, ‘We wouldn’t be so fast to recommend Santa Barbara to our friends,’ or ‘We may not come back again.’ ”
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