The Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) is instating a new neighborhood policing strategy that will divide Santa Cruz into five distinct neighborhoods to focus on issues common to each established neighborhood. This new policing will start March 1.

Changing strategies comes as a renewed effort to reduce crime in the city. On the city crime rating site Neighborhood Scout, Santa Cruz has a crime index rank of 1, where 100 is the safest.

“If you look at the crime rate in Santa Cruz, either overall or per capita, we’re significantly higher than the state and national average. In fact, we are very high in terms of property crime,” said SCPD Police Chief Andrew Mills. “So if what you’re doing is not being successful, then why stick with it? Find a different way to manage those problems.”

The five neighborhoods recognized by the police department are upper Westside, upper Eastside, lower Eastside, lower Westside and downtown. Each neighborhood will have an assigned police lieutenant, sergeant and staff of officers. While Santa Cruz has issues that span all neighborhoods, Mills said, certain neighborhoods face unique issues such as illegal RV parking in lower Westside, car theft in downtown and houseless camping in upper Westside.

Illustration by Lizzy Choi

The Santa Cruz City Council and city manager Martín Bernal helped the SCPD with deciding how to break up the five neighborhoods.

“Problem solving means being more available to work with the community to fix issues and come up with solutions instead of just responding to 911 calls,” Bernal said. “And it is kind of hard to deal with [alternative solutions] when your police structure is spread out around the city, going from one part of the town to another.”

SCPD currently implements the community policing strategy, which is similar to neighborhood policing but works with the community as a whole to address issues from the whole city and county instead of separate neighborhoods. Mills said SCPD believes neighborhood policing will be more efficient because issues vary from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Mills said two of the most effective policing strategies are Compare Statistics (CompStat) and neighborhood policing. CompStat uses preemptive techniques such as stop-and-frisk based off of analyzing spikes in crime. The stop-and-frisk strategy often results in racial profiling when adopted by other cities.

Mills, while acknowledging the effectiveness of CompStat, did not believe it would work for the Santa Cruz community. Instead, Mills hopes neighborhood policing will act as a preemptive technique by using feedback from each neighborhood’s residents such as reports of activities that damage their community.

“I was able to go through all that data for the upper Westside and narrow it down to three types of initiatives,” said Lieutenant Christian LeMoss who was assigned to the upper Westside neighborhood. “Those three are going to be thefts, traffic issues and then nuisance issues, which are […] associated with homeless [residents], not that homeless is a crime but just the nuisances with camping, drug use, people finding needles on the sidewalk.”

Food Not Bombs (FNB), an organization that frequently advocates for Santa Cruz’s houseless population has monitored SCPD’s treatment of houseless persons. FNB is not collaborating with the SCPD but intends to keep watch for any future unfair treatment of houseless residents. FNB hopes SCPD may reconsider certain policies that FNB has opposed in the past, such as ticketing houseless residents for sleeping in banned areas, under its new policing strategies.

“I’m hoping that the chief of police is sensitive to this,” said founder of FNB Keith McHenry. “If his people in the areas that have a lot of homeless people, hopefully they will develop friendships instead of perceiving people living on the streets as a crime.”

Officers in their designated neighborhoods may work with local organizations, such as neighborhood watch and schools, to educate residents on safe crime prevention techniques custom to their specific needs. Mills’ goal for this switch is to move from responding to emergencies to working with neighborhoods to preventing them in the first place.

“The key element for me is neighborhood policing builds a relationship between the police and the community,” Mills said. “Problem-solving neighborhood policing builds the community and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish here.”

With the new changes in March, the SCPD will hold community meetings for each neighborhood where residents can take part in setting their neighborhood’s priorities.