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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on January 1st, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 43 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 43

Violence is relative: Federal stats put Santa Maria in the top 10 most violent cities in California--but local leaders say the numbers are skewed


Just weeks before the scheduled opening of the new jewel of downtown Santa Maria—the Regal Theater—a report began to circulate on social media calling attention to the city’s ranking as the 10th most violent city in the state.

The report that surfaced in November was based on the FBI’s ranking of most violent cities in California based on 2012 data. It showed Santa Maria beating out cities like Los Angeles and Bakersfield, and it left local residents debating the safety of where they live.

The report said that Santa Maria has an average of 6.78 violent crimes per 1,000 residents. That breaks down to 143 robberies; two homicides and non-negligent manslaughter; 21 forcible rapes; 714 burglaries; 2,427 property crimes; 1,318 larceny thefts; 399 motor vehicle thefts; nine arson incidents; and 529 aggravated assaults.

In 2011, Santa Maria had 716 violent crimes; including seven murder and non-negligent manslaughter; and 538 aggravated assaults, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports website.

Mayor Alice Patino said she received mixed reactions to the report: “Some people commented to me that they think it’s just terrible, and others say there’s got to be an explanation.”

Then days before the theater’s opening, rumors of possible planned gang violence prompted mall and theater management to beef up security. The rumors turned out to be false, and the theater had twice the number it was expecting for its opening, with 8,400 people attending.

City officials believe the report data and gang rumors were stirred up by someone who wanted to negatively impact the theater’s opening, such as a disgruntled ex-employee, because the report was actually included in a June 4, 2013 article by the San Francisco Business Times (at which time it received little notice in Santa Maria) and re-circulated shortly before the theater’s planned opening.

Many residents who’d been hesitant to attend the theater’s opening said they try to avoid certain areas of the city.

“I don’t know why they put the new theater here; it’s only going to draw this kind of element,” one couple said, pointing to a group of young people.

Another couple complained that they’ve watched their beloved city change in a dramatic way over the last few decades. “You can’t even go downtown and feel safe,” one of them said.

No one wanted to officially go on record with their comments.


Does santa maria
 deserve to be 10th?

Patino finds a lot of things wrong with the FBI report, which was called the “Uniform Crime Reporting Program.” The FBI uses crimes statistics reported by agencies to the Department of Justice. The ranking compares only cities of more than 100,000 people.

“We’re being compared with cities with over 100,000 in population like Oakland and Los Angeles,” Patino said.

Santa Maria has just more than 100,000 people, according to the last census, and Patino argued that Santa Maria shouldn’t be compared with even larger cities.

The report showed that law enforcement agencies across the country reported an increase of 1.2 percent in the number of violent crimes in 2012 over the previous year, while crimes against property—which include burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft—decreased by 0.8 percent nationally.

Patino also faulted the report because she said all agencies don’t report the same way. For instance, Santa Maria reports its domestic violence calls to the program as part of its aggravated assaults, though it’s not required to do so. Many other agencies don’t report those domestic violence calls, giving them improved numbers, Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin said.

He pointed out that the FBI report even carries a disclaimer because of such discrepancies. Unfortunately, Martin said, Santa Maria is unfairly portrayed as overly violent.

With such reporting discrepancies, Patino expressed reservations about the relevance of the ranking and such reports.

“I’m not sure what good they do,” she said. “If we’re not comparing apples to apples or oranges to oranges, it doesn’t make much sense.”

To accurately understand the ranking, Martin said it helps to know that Santa Maria was ranked out of 68 cities with 100,000 or more people.



Defining assault

As noted earlier, Santa Maria decided some years ago to report its domestic violence reports along with its assault numbers, but that isn’t quite accurate because not all domestic violence calls can be considered aggravated assault.

Aggravated assault is defined as a crime against people, and it includes the categories of homicide, rapes, robberies, and assault with a weapon. So while domestic violence can fall under that definition, it doesn’t always. Martin said that while some assault cases involve the use of a weapon, not all do—and those that don’t shouldn’t be included in the reported numbers.

“We had more than 500 aggravated assaults. It boggles the mind that you can have that many aggravated assaults where somebody has a weapon and nobody died,” Martin said to emphasize that Santa Maria isn’t as dangerous as it’s being made out to be.

Santa Maria averages four homicides a year, Martin said, making it much less violent than other cities of its size, as defined by the report. In comparison, 2013 had three homicides. Self-defense killings are still captured as a homicide, but deemed justified after the district attorney reviews and classifies them as such, Martin said. Justifiable officer-involved shootings aren’t deemed homicides.

Further muddling the rankings is the fact that agencies aren’t required to report the domestic reports as aggravated assault, so many don’t.

“The devil’s in the details, and that’s the case here,” Martin said.

Domestic violence is still violent, Martin admitted, and many times it involves pushing or shoving, but it isn’t the type of violence that would cause a city to be ranked as violent. He said only 26 of the documented domestic assaults involved a weapon, which would classify them as aggravated assaults. He said that if the domestic violence reports were removed, Santa Maria would sit closer to 21st ranking on the list.

So what of those domestic violence reports? Removing nearly half of 
the aggravated assaults that are 
actually domestic violence reports may decrease the aggravated assault numbers, but that suggests another violence problem.

“Do we have a domestic violence problem?” Martin asked. “Yes, I think we do—but it’s more open, and we talk about it more.”


Domestic violence

City Manager Rick Haydon said he doesn’t think Santa Maria has a domestic violence rate relatively higher than that of any comparable city. Much of the increased reporting, he explained, has to do with the city’s public outreach campaign in trying to get victims or witnesses to report domestic abuse regardless of immigration status.

“When you have a city going out and doing that, you have a higher number of reportings,” he said. “So if you put it in perspective, if the program is successful you would get a higher report rate.”

Teri Zuniga, a supervisor at the District Attorney Victim Witness Program, said domestic violence represents one of the largest caseloads at the district attorney’s office, followed by child sexual assault and molestations.

Although she hasn’t done research into domestic violence rates in comparable cities, she said that Santa Maria has the highest level of domestic violence in Santa Barbara County.

Defining domestic violence, why it happens, why it’s reported or not reported, and why the numbers are so high is like peeling the layers away from an onion, she explained. Part of why the numbers are high is that the crime is cyclical in nature; in other words, one batterer may be the cause of several reports.

Society, too, is reluctant to understand what motivates a batterer.

Finally, there’s not enough understanding about what causes a victim’s hesitancy to report.

“We vilify the perpetrators, then we get mad at the victims as a society, as a community,” Zuniga said.

She said there’s no justification for a batterer, but in order to stop the cycle there needs to be an understanding of why it happens, and then efforts need to be put in place to treat the batterer. When she worked with Domestic Violence Solutions, it was one of the first programs to start a batterers treatment program, she said.

Zuniga said there are also many reasons why people don’t report domestic violence. Illegal immigrants may be hesitant to report it, not because their culture is more tolerant, but because they may fear the deportation of their husband and the subsequent inability to find a job and support their children.

Likewise, she said, many wealthy Caucasian women who are financially dependent on their husbands won’t report domestic abuse because they fear damage to their husband’s image and possibly losing the ability to raise their children at the financial level to which they’re accustomed.

Interestingly, a financially independent woman may not report abuse because of the shame she perceives may come to her.

“We know from national statistics that domestic violence cuts across all economic, religious, and cultural factors,” Zuniga said.

Martin agreed. He also said that it’s not just typical man-against-woman abuse. He said the department gets domestic violence reports of wives against husbands, between boyfriend and girlfriend, boyfriend and boyfriend, and girlfriend and girlfriend.

The department is making strides, however. Martin said everyone is offered the option to file a restraining order and is encouraged to do so. Programs like Divergent Solutions are there to assist the victims, and when the police arrive to take a report, the officers stay with the victim until the spouse or partner can be contacted.

“So we’re making the correct adjustments,” Martin said. “I think we’ll see a vast improvement in the numbers.”


The perception

Back to the overall violent crime numbers. Do they color the perceptions of residents, or is there something else?

Martin thinks that aside from the FBI report there have been other factors at play more recently. He said that the homicides in Santa Maria in 2012 were extremely violent and more were recently sensationalized in the news. He used some examples of incidents from last year.

In 2013, the year started with an officer-involved shooting after police killed a man who allegedly stabbed his wife and threatened officers. In March, there was an incident in which 11 people were accused of murdering a man and allegedly placing his body in a U-Haul trailer that was later found in the 
Orcutt area.

Then, of course, there have been several officer-involved shootings in recent years—in which, Martin added, the assailants allegedly had weapons.

“There’s a tendency to see Santa Maria as uncontrollable,” the chief said.

However, he said, of the past 17 homicides over the years, 15 were gang members. He said much of the crime—especially homicide—is gang-on-gang violence. With 1,000 people (or approximately 1 percent of the city) defined as documented gang members, the police force has its work cut out for it, and the department’s gang enforcement team is aggressive about deterring any gang crime. But in terms of violence, the average person isn’t a target, he said.

City Manager Haydon said there’s also another reason people see Santa Maria as violent: The city tries to uphold a spirit of transparency and full disclosure. Yes, leaders report the domestic violence stats as well as assaults, as Martin said, but the city also reports publicly about the more egregious crimes, Haydon explained.

“You rarely see San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara send out those press releases unless it’s important. They are tourist cities,” he said.

Haydon said he worked in Monterey as the city’s business manager: “I can tell you one of the main things is not to have any negative press. Here, the philosophy is different. We are public servants. Serving and keeping the public informed is our main goal.”

He also puts some of the blame on what people see on television and the way more egregious crimes are reported.

“I just think that coming out of the last four or five years in the recession there has been a cloud over the economy at the state level, and it permeates over the local level. Unemployment has been high on the Central Coast. People have been downsized and laid off throughout the Central Coast. Then you couple that with when you turn on the news and it’s negative,” Haydon said.

Patino said she doesn’t buy into the negative perception of Santa Maria and feels safe anywhere in the city.

“I don’t think [Santa Maria is violent], but some people do,” she said. “If you live in Santa Maria, folks feel pretty good about Santa Maria.”

Patino said Santa Maria’s bigger downfall isn’t necessarily crime, but 
its cars.

“People are terrible drivers,” she said. “People are rude when they’re driving.”

She said there are also a lot of drunk drivers in Santa Maria.

Fortunately for the driving situation—as well as crime and gang suppression—Measure U funds have allowed for 14 new police officers.

“We were down quite a few officers in our city because of budget cuts,” Patino said. “You’re going to see a big difference.”

Reports like the FBI’s ranking of the most violent cities only add to the negative talk, according to city officials. Martin and Patino said Santa Maria’s police department won’t be reporting domestic violence in its aggravated assault numbers anymore.

“So the ranking should be better next year,” Patino said.


The positive

No matter where Santa Maria lands in the rankings of most violent cities in the state, city officials believe there are a lot of positive things that are overlooked.

Zuniga is optimistic about the police department’s efforts at re-committing itself to a more community-oriented policing model, saying it creates an environment of trust.

Haydon said that more synergy is taking place with the economic development happening in the downtown area, and he’s optimistic it will make a positive impact in the city. But he also said it’s the people themselves who make Santa Maria a vibrant and unique place on the Central Coast.

“I don’t think you can find another community on the Central Coast that’s more charitable and giving than Santa Maria,” Haydon said, referring to the number of barbecues, auctions, and fundraisers he said seem to occur every other weekend.

Patino said she also sees the people of Santa Maria as very generous: “I think 
the biggest attribute in this city 
is organizations working together to address problems and coming up with solutions.” m


Contact contributor Shelly Cone via the executive editor at rmiller@santamaria

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