There’s no denying that Downtown and the rest of Santa Monica have experienced an increase in crime. With 2017 nearly at a close, Part 1 crime, which includes violent incidents like murder and sexual assault, as well as robberies and arson, is up 10 percent compared to last year. The 26 percent increase in homelessness and the accompanying anti-social behavior has also raised concerns in the community, with some residents opining on social media that nothing is being done to address it.
Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. reached out to the top law enforcement officer in the city, Interim Santa Monica Police Chief Kenneth Semko, a 26-year veteran of the force, to get his perspective and learn more about the City of Santa Monica’s efforts to keep residents and visitors safe. (Semko was tapped to lead the department in September following the retirement of Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks. The city manager is currently searching for a permanent replacement.)
Q) Chief, there is the perception that downtown Santa Monica, and perhaps the city as a whole, is not as safe as it was, say just a year or two ago, and that we have experienced an increase in crime. First off, where do we stand today in terms of the overall crime rate when compared to last year or two years ago? Are we seeing an increase in certain areas of the city, or an increase in certain types of crimes? If so, what are they, and where are they occurring mainly? Do the numbers tell a different story than the perception some have, particularly following the recent stabbing and fatal shooting in downtown?
A) We have seen an uptick in the crime rate [compared to last year] of 10 percent for Part 1 crimes. That may seem like a lot, but to put it in perspective, that is roughly 1.2 crimes [more] per day citywide. Any increase in crime, or crime in general for that matter, we do not tolerate. But for some to say on social media that we are spiraling out of control, statistically that is not true. Social media is a great communications tool, but at the same time if what people are saying is not properly vetted, people take that as fact and run with it, and, quite frankly, most of the information is simply not true. By posting inaccurate information, or things that are just not factual, that creates this misperception that there is a dramatic increase in crime, which then leads to fear.
The other issue is that we certainly have seen an increase in homelessness, 26 percent over where we were in 2016. The majority of our homeless individuals are in the downtown area. A lot of people will see that and equate it with crime. Just because you are homeless does not mean you are a criminal. But when people see more homeless on the street, they assume crime is out of control. There is homelessness and there is lawlessness. Two entirely different things.
Q) We often hear from business owners that police officers do not enforce certain lower level crimes because the suspects, if convicted, would be released early or not jailed at all, and instead diverted to rehab. Is there some truth to this? Are state laws interfering with an officer’s ability to do their jobs?
A) I don’t think laws are interfering with officers doing their job. We are going to enforce the laws regardless of sentencing guidelines. It’s not up to police departments, but rather the judicial system, to set penalties for crimes. There’s no doubt that we have a community that has been impacted by Prop. 47 [which downgraded six drug and theft crimes to misdemeanors and allowed defendants to renegotiate their punishments], and AB 109 [which shifted some inmates to county jails instead of prison]. Where we used to see repeat offenders get prison time, that is simply no longer the case. They get arrested, and if they do any time at all they are getting out in a relatively short amount of time. We are seeing more repeat offenders, but that is not going to stop us from doing our job. We are going to keep using the tools we have in order to curtail any illegal behavior.
Q) Is there an update on the recent fatal shooting on Ocean Avenue or the stabbing in front of REI?
A) Both are active investigations so I cannot comment at this time, but I am confident that we will be able to announce the arrest of those responsible for both incidents soon.
Q) How is the department responding to residents’ concerns about crime?
A) Aside from our regular duties, we are out in the community talking with folks about the realities of what’s going on and the challenges we are facing together. Currently the city is in the process of hosting over a dozen community meetings in coordination with the City Manager’s Office, the Human Services Division, to talk specifically about homelessness, public safety concerns and the city manager is using this opportunity to speak with residents about what they would like to see in a future police chief.
After noticing a big influx of homeless, we started to see an increase in quality of life calls, like drunk in public, disturbing the peace, lower level crimes. We changed our approach and using data we are able to concentrate our efforts where the bulk of these crimes are happening. We are sending out additional resources to address these issues, above our regular deployment levels.
This also helps us engage more with the homeless population and be more proactive. If we see something criminal, of course we will address that. But if it is just somebody who is homeless, we can find out what their needs are and address it from that end. It all comes down to perception of safety. It is important for people to see us out there. We recognize there is a problem and we are taking steps to address it.
Q) Are we fully staffed or do we still have a need to hire more officers? How many officers do we have and what is your ideal level of deployment?
A) As a police chief you always want additional resources, but the City Council has provided the budget for us to staff for 224 officers, with the approval to go an additional eight over that. Right now we are about 212 sworn officers, that includes officers in the academy. We are actively recruiting and hiring, as are most agencies in Los Angeles County. One of the challenges we have is finding the quality of person that the community deserves. Santa Monicans demand the best of the best. It’s a constant struggle to find the quality applicant who is going to spend an entire career serving this community. It is a long process, from when someone applies to when they are on the street. Less than 1 percent of applicants actually make it through. We’re constantly fighting against retirements. With that being said, we have increased staffing levels for our background investigators to hire additional officers.
I think overall in law enforcement we see a bit of a [downward] shift in the number of applications nationwide, and that goes in line with support law enforcement has. Fortunately for us we have the privilege of having great support in the community, which makes Santa Monica an enticing place to work. (Applicants) know they are coming into a community where they are supported and protected. That fuels a desire for our folks to work hard for the community they serve.
Q) Are there any resources available to business owners, apartment managers and residents in dealing with violent or anti-social behavior?
A) This is obvious but worth saying: if you see violent behavior or feel threatened please call 9-1-1. If you are talking about ongoing anti-social behavior, there are a couple of things you can do. One is to have an open line of communication with your neighbors, fellow business owners or property owners and share information with one another and officers — what time of day are these incidents happening, who is involved. Officers can come out and speak with these folks who are creating the problems, and find out if they are doing something criminal, or if they are in need of some help and direction. We can provide that as well.
There is some additional funding to help provide training to the community in how to interact with some of those individuals, what they can do prior to police getting involved in order to keep themselves safe and keep the area safe. In addition to that, I would say continue to cooperate with law enforcement by ensuring no trespassing letters are on file and when applicable, no sleeping or lying signage is posted in doorways. It sounds very simple but it gives us the tools we need to address folks who are causing a problem.