For somebody who spends a good deal of his time learning about and reporting on violent crime, Helbard Alkhassadeh is surprisingly upbeat. When City on a Hill Press met with him at Café Delmarette in downtown Santa Cruz, he was all smiles, joking with the photographer and cheerfully complaining about the wind.
But, when talking about his web site, StabSantaCruz.com, as well as his new project, Operation Snitch, it becomes obvious that beneath the 30-something professional product photographer’s pleasant demeanor, he’s serious about stopping violent crime in Santa Cruz.
City on a Hill Press (CHP): Your current website, StabSantaCruz.com, reports all stabbings that happen in the area. What inspired you to start it?
Helbard Alkhassadeh (HA): I worked in welfare for five years. I saw it all: poverty, child abuse, gang violence … my whole thought process changed about how we’re supposed to handle things. You can’t just pretend it’s not happening … I started off with the stabbing problem that we had in town. And, most people don’t realize it, but we’re having a lot fewer stabbings this year than we did the last couple years. We’re up to 22 at this point this year … If we keep at this rate, we’ll probably keep under 70 stabbings, which is going to be less than last year, which is sort of the goal of Stab Santa Cruz.
CHP: What can you tell us about your new project, Operation Snitch?
HA: When I realized that people weren’t calling the police because they’re so scared of retribution, or because they don’t want to deal with the cops … I built a site [Operation Snitch] where people can just send in their information and I’m the information middleman. I get it and I give it to the cops. It’s that easy.
In a week, we’re going to start the streaming of the police dispatch and fire dispatch … so, for example, today I was sitting there and I heard that there’s two people doing heroin down the street from us … so I went to my window and looked to see if there were any cars that fit that description. The cops just got another pair of eyes on the road. … That’s what Operation Snitch is. And, little by little, we’re trying to get webcams up and streaming them [onto the web site].
CHP: Although the subject of your web site is obviously very serious, the tone is less than somber. For example, you sell shirts that say “stabalicious” on them. What is the purpose of that?
HA: It had to do with what John Stewart of “The Daily Show” does. He takes the same garbage that comes out of CNN and FOX and puts a punch line at the end of it, and people listen to him, and they start paying attention. I never make fun of the victims. … There’s this frosting around it, just to attract you to the cake, and then, when you get to the cake, you realize the cake sucks, and the frosting was the best part, and then you walk away thinking to yourself, “Man, 72 stabbings last year?”
CHP: Has anyone ever been offended by your site?
HA: I’ve gotten hate mail. … I think I’m up to five at this point. Compared to all the ones I get about people loving the site, I think that’s pretty good. One of them was awesome, it was ‘Fuck you’ written over and over again, about 300 times. ‘Fuck you, fuck you!’ (laughs). And I was like, ‘I wonder if that’s the mayor!’
CHP: How do you feel about the Santa Cruz Police Department teaming up with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to reduce gang violence?
HA: I’m what I call an equal opportunity stabbing reducer. I don’t care where it comes from, I want the stabbings to stop. … [However] I don’t think it’s going to reduce stabbings. I think it might put a dent in the crime. I think there’s more of an economic reason for the crime, and a huge portion of the crime is being caused by drug use.
CHP: You must care a lot about Santa Cruz if you go to such lengths to make the community safer. What do you like about living here?
HA: I moved here in 1993. I was in San Jose before that, and I made a day trip to Santa Cruz to a friend’s house, and I never left. There’s nothing that I don’t like here. … We live in such an amazingly beautiful place, and there’s no way we’re going to let it get trashed or ruined or messed with.