ARCATA – Arcata’s Public Safety Committee took tangible steps last week toward developing civilian police oversight in Arcata. It also heard alarming news of a pronounced year-over-year jump in crime – both violent and property crime cases.
With Chair Lettie Dyer absent and Vice Chair Jesse Lopez having resigned, Melissa Lazon was elected to the vice chair position, and conducted the meeting.
The first item of business, Police Chief Brian Ahearn’s “Dashboard Report” – a monthly summary of incidents logged by Arcata Police – brought bad news. Arcata is experiencing double digit increases in violent crime and property crime compared to this time last year. And that wasn’t even counting the recent stabbing death on G Street, which will be included in next month’s figures.
Assault cases are driving the increase, Ahearn said, with 48 logged this year over last year’s 34 for the same monthly period from late February to late March. But they generally aren’t random acts of violence, rather, they’re “purposeful, intentional” acts, Ahearn said, among people who know each other.
“They could be spur of the moment, but they involved people in disagreements that escalates to use of weapons,” he said.
Ahearn suggested that with reopening, people with grudges are re-encountering each other, and succumbing to the impulse to settle scores with whatever implements are lying around.
“Weapons are all across the board, from broaches to wood, baseball bat, handgun and metal pipes,” he said. “It’s usually what’s available to the suspect at the time.”
Only more isolation is likely to stem the surge. “I see this trend continuing unless we have another pandemic, which I’m not [hoping] for,” Ahearn said.
Valley West is emerging as a crime hotspot, with Carlson Park on the banks of the Mad River a particular problem.
The park, which the city is fashioning into a unique recreational spot with river access, has become overrun and dominated by homeless campers.
The campers, whose tents dot the landscape, are degrading the environment there with social trails, trees cut down leaving jagged stumps, strange and erosive excavation projects, and – despite repeated cleanups by the city and the PacOut Green Team – widespread stashes of garbage and waste.
“There’s lots of cover,” Ahearn said. “It’s a very risky place to be under cover of night,” he said.
Ahearn said the riverbank hosts an active criminal cohort which uses the area as a base camp from which to enter the greater Valley West community and commit crimes. On an everyday basis, this might include shoplifting and other petty crime. Unfortunately, it goes much further, according to Ahearn.
“They’re stabbing people, shooting people and beating them with wood,” he said.
One recent attack occurred within the park, when one individual shot another between the eyes with a pellet gun. Acting as a Good Samaritan, someone brought the injured person out to a nearby store, but the helpful citizen turned out to be the suspected assailant.
A recent shooting near Valley West’s hotels was over a drug debt, with the two suspects fleeing after hiding the gun in shrubbery. One suspect surrendered the next day, and the other was located in Marin County and returned to Humboldt, where he is facing charges of attempted murder
City Manager Karen Diemer confirmed that city workers are often required to enter the area only in pairs for their safety.
She noted that the park was created as environmental mitigation for a Caltrans project, and that areas there require continuous monitoring. The city is moving forward with initiatives to restore and develop the park for its intended recreational use. A grant is in the works to hire John Shelter’s New Directions organization to conduct cleanups and connect homeless individuals with services.
Other grants will be used to develop recreational space and an ADA-compliant boat launch.
Town-wide through March 11, APD logged a 46 percent increase in property crime over last year. People who make a living by thievery are taking whatever is available, Ahearn said.
Bicycles are being stolen, as are packages left on porches. Vehicles are being raided of property, whether they’re locked or not. Thieves are breaking car windows to rummage for valuables under seats and in glove compartments, leaving the vehicle owner with a costly window repair bill.
“We have our work cut out for us on this front,” Ahearn said.
Civilian police oversight
The committee moved ahead to ascertain the possibility of conducting civilian police review. Depending on legalities, this could allow the committee to audit APD officers’ conduct following a complaint, and after an internal affairs (IA) investigation.
Ahearn supports civilian oversight in principle, but reality-checked the committee with several cautions.
First, the city attorney would have to determine how much access civilians could have to confidential and personnel records in a general law city such as Arcata.
The committee would also have to define its goals. “What would rise to level of investigation by the panel?” Ahearn wondered.
Committeemember Anjalai Browning said the goal is more transparency and fairness, and whether complaints were addressed fairly. Ahearn suggested that excessive force complaints might be of interest. He said up to five complaint-driven IA investigations may occur in a year, though some years go by with no complaints.
With law enforcement careers “hanging in the balance,” Ahearn said, any civilian police review committee would require extensive – and costly – training and support.
To properly review and adjudicate complaints and follow-through, the overseers would have to undergo ongoing training to understand police policies and procedures. This would involve time spent by salaried staff, and possibly outside personnel.
Some civilian review models in use by other cities involve use of paid city staffmembers. Any review board would also require office space, equipments and supplies, as well as administrative support.
“All that comes with a price tag,” Ahearn said. It will be up to the City Council to decide the level of financial support and what will be possible. “It’s a big lift,” Ahearn said. But, he added, “We can do this, if it’s the will of the council.”
Throughout country, he said, communities are demanding independent oversight not connected to their police departments, and he supports properly configured civilian review in principle.
“I’m not sure where Arcata is on this, but we’ll find out,” Ahearn said. “I completely support it, but we have to build it right... I don’t want all of you to be accused of being the rubber stamp for the police department.”
The subcommittee charged with studying the matter is to further review options and report back to the main committee.