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Marchers Demand that Santa Barbara Put Public Safety First

Neighborhood organizations band together to press city over increasing crime rates

Fed up with rising crime in their neighborhoods, several hundred Santa Barbara residents marched to City Hall on Saturday to demand that public safety be made the city’s top priority.

“We have had it up to here with ‘let’s hug a gangbanger, open another pot dispensary and adopt another homeless person,’” West Downtown neighborhood activist Sharon Byrne called out.

Milpas Community Association president Alan Bleecker, center, helped revitalize the organization after it disbanded several years ago.
Milpas Community Association president Alan Bleecker, center, helped revitalize the organization after it disbanded several years ago. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

The frustration was reiterated by residents from every neighborhood in the city, as people called for more police officers on the streets and a more responsive City Council.

Financial hardships are understandable but the city should prioritize safety above all else, said Tony Romasanta, owner of the Harbor View Inn Hotel. He said the city should make cuts in other programs if necessary to address the crime problem.

Lower Eastside resident George Ied, a 37-year-old Syrian immigrant, was severely beaten and left for dead while he walked home from work at Mi Fiesta Liquor, 833 N. Milpas St., on Oct. 12. Ied never regained consciousness and died of his injuries several days later. Four known gang members have been arrested and charged in his murder.

The attack spurred residents into action, in much the same way that a fatal stabbing on Lower De la Vina Street mobilized West Downtown residents in 2009.

Santa Barbara’s crime rates are higher than the national average for cities of its size, said Milpas Community Association president Alan Bleecker. Statistics back up what all residents are feeling and seeing every day, he said.

Mei-jung “Mama Lu” Gaffney, owner of Mama Lu, 414 N. Milpas St., and Madam Lu, 3524 State St., was physically assaulted in her Milpas Street business and juveniles vandalized her restaurant a week later. She attended Saturday’s march and spoke of how different the environments were for her two restaurants. More police officers are needed to deal with the Milpas Street area, she said.

Rick Feldman, owner of Santa Barbara Eyeglass Factory, 1 S. Milpas St., said the city has become a “five-star magnet for criminality,” and stores and homeowners in that area of the city don’t expect a fast response time — if a response time at all — from police.

There’s not one cause to the problems overflowing into all areas of the city, but march organizers pointed to the large number of liquor licenses, drugs and marijuana dispensaries, “career homeless” who are chronic offenders, and gangs. As one sign summed it up, “City Hall Priorities Suck.”

Mei-jung Gaffney, owner of Mama Lu and Madam Lu restaurants, was physically attacked and her Milpas Street business was vandalized in two separate incidents this month.
Mei-jung Gaffney, owner of Mama Lu and Madam Lu restaurants, was physically attacked and her Milpas Street business was vandalized in two separate incidents this month. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

A handful of off-duty police officers, including Sgt. Mike McGrew, president of the Santa Barbara Police Officers Association, marched with the residents.

“There aren’t enough cops, and it eventually gets to the point that you guys notice it,” McGrew said.

The “people’s march,” as organizers described it, was purposefully politician-free, except for Councilmen Dale Francisco and Frank Hotchkiss.

Francisco said many saw Ied’s death as the last straw, and he said he hopes the council can address the marchers’ demand for a larger police force.

“Police haven’t been the high priority for the council for a long, long time,” he said.

“We really have been cutting spots in the police department, it’s been steeper there than other parts of the city,” he said. “They were bearing the brunt of the cuts.”

Wrapping up, speakers urged the crowd to be persistent and bring their grievances to decision-makers.

“Don’t walk away from this, go home and forget about it,” Bryne urged the crowd.

Along with the Milpas Community Association, neighborhood organizations were out in force, including the Mesa, San Roque, West Beach and West Downtown. Marchers assembled at the Santa Barbara Train Station then walked up State Street to De la Guerra Plaza and the steps of City Hall.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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