Illustration by Patrick Yeung.
Illustration by Patrick Yeung.

Troubled by the increase of violent crimes in Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) is filling eight officer positions and bringing in the help of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The City Council made an emergency decision last Tuesday night to fill eight police officer slots, previously vacated because of retirements.

This decision was made despite the strain it could put on the budget with its approximated $1 million cost, according to Councilmember Tony Madrigal.

“There has always been a need to fill all the vacancies, and the recent riot, the violent destruction downtown, and recent killings added an even greater sense of urgency to the council’s decision,” Madrigal said.

Madrigal said the council is making plans to discuss how to pay for these officers. “Now more than ever, our council is going to take a serious look at … ballot measures in the next year to ask voters if they would approve a tax increase to pay for the added expense,” he said.

SCPD spokesperson Zach Friend explained the important improvements that eight more police officers can bring to Santa Cruz.

“The eight additional officers will allow us to increase the amount of officers downtown and in the gang unit,” he said.

Eight police officers were on duty during the night of the infamous riot, a number that some say illustrates the need to fill the vacancies as quickly as possible.

In 2000, the SCPD peaked with a force of 104 officers, which has since fallen to 87.

The decrease in officers coincided with an increase in 911 calls — 85,774 in 2009, up 25 percent from 2006.

In addition to hiring eight new officers, the SCPD also recently announced a new partnership with ICE to control gang crime, a move that has many in the community feeling apprehensive.

ICE will be in Santa Cruz to “augment the numbers and investigative skills of our gang unit,” Friend said.

Doug Keenan, director of the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project (SCCIP), works with people living in Santa Cruz County who wish to become citizens by providing legal services such as naturalization, appeals, and waivers.

He questioned the benefits that will emerge from this relationship between the SCPD and ICE, and is concerned about the impact it could have on undocumented immigrants.

“I’m not sure exactly how this partnership will work,” Keenan said. “Will it lead to raids and sweeps? Will it increase the anxiety and level of mistrust between the police and the community? An end to gang violence is something that we all want to see … but I don’t know what ICE adds to the effort.”

Tony Madrigal also questioned the role ICE will play, and how wise it is to give them a presence in Santa Cruz — a sanctuary city.

“People are calling, asking me ‘Will I get stopped on the street? Why are they here specifically? Will they be doing immigration sweeps because they happen to already be here?’” Madrigal said.

After hearing these concerns, Zach Friend asserted that ICE will not spend its time in Santa Cruz pursuing anything that does not pertain to gangs.

“[ICE] is here to deal with gang-related crimes, not to deal with petty immigration violations,” he said.

Friend went on to point out the benefits of ICE, explaining that most gang members in Santa Cruz belong to a much larger web, with national or even international connections, and having federal resources on-hand will be a huge help.

Madrigal is of a similar opinion. However, he expressed concern with the level of communication between the police and the community.

“A simple explanation by the police, in English and Spanish, could help a lot to promote more cooperation, trust, and willingness to call in with information,” Madrigal said. “There’s a willingness to cooperate that we continuously want to strengthen and foster with everyone in the community, regardless of their legal immigration status.”

Regardless of how many new officers the SCPD hires, or how effective the ICE partnership turns out to be, Madrigal said that the community must work together to make a more secure future.

“We are not going to stop the violence by simply dividing people,” he said. “We need to be looking out for one another and not be fearful of each other.”