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Isla Vista Foot Patrol Sees New Community Resource Deputy As Vital Piece of Police Presence

With the right officer, history of community policing in student-heavy area next to UCSB portends a successful future for concept

Since its founding in the 1970s, the Isla Vista Foot Patrol generally has tried to follow a model of community policing that emphasizes interaction as much as enforcement. Click to view larger
Since its founding in the 1970s, the Isla Vista Foot Patrol generally has tried to follow a model of community policing that emphasizes interaction as much as enforcement. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Most days, Santa Barbara County sheriff’s Lt. Rob Plastino feels like mayor of Isla Vista — a nonexistent job, he knows, since the small unincorporated area isn’t a city.

Plastino is a public figure as head of the Isla Vista Foot Patrol, whose 22 members walk and bike the streets of the densely populated community to protect 23,000 people living on less than one square mile adjacent to UC Santa Barbara.

He serves as go-between, listening to property owners, student renters, university groups and other stakeholders, along with his own unit of sheriff’s deputies and UC police officers.

Until recently, he’s been stretched pretty thin.

Isla Vista used to only border UCSB to the east, not surround it on three sides (the ocean is on the fourth).

That was in the 1990s — the last time the Foot Patrol saw a staffing level change, although the community has grown 25 percent since then, Sheriff Bill Brown said.

Geographically speaking, Isla Vista is small, yet it accounts for 25 percent of reported crimes in unincorporated areas of the county.

Plastino saw a slight reprieve earlier this month when the county Board of Supervisors approved funding for the department’s first-ever Isla Vista community resource deputy.

The move is unprecedented, since the county has never foot the bill for this post in unincorporated areas. It’s all the more special because Isla Vista residents lobbied for the change.

“They really want to have that tie to law enforcement,” Plastino told Noozhawk. “If you don’t have that connection to the people, perceptions are made. And maybe those perceptions are wrong, but they still weigh heavily on how people look at law enforcement.”

                                                                 •        •        •

With an estimated 23,000 mostly young residents crammed into a one-square-mile community, Isla Vista has long posed a particular challenge for law enforcement. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)
With an estimated 23,000 mostly young residents crammed into a one-square-mile community, Isla Vista has long posed a particular challenge for law enforcement. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

The Isla Vista Foot Patrol was formed after rioting in the 1960s and ’70s, when UCSB students were protesting the Vietnam War and the university during the “bad times,” according to Chief Deputy Sam Gross.

That was not long after UCSB had moved from Santa Barbara’s Riviera neighborhood to the former Marine Corps Air Station where it is today, growing significantly in the process.

After civil unrest led to a police officer accidentally shooting and killing a student in 1970, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan commissioned a report addressing what to do about Isla Vista.

The recommendation, in short, was that the Sheriff’s Department and UCSB should work together.

And so, Gross said, one of California’s first community policing models was born.

In December 1970, the unit that would become the Foot Patrol began walks from campus to the Loop in Isla Vista. The walks got longer, and grant funding established a contingent of six UC police officers and six sheriff’s deputies and a visible station on Pardall Road.

Gross began the first of four stints with the Foot Patrol in 1977, taking to a model that emphasized interaction as much as enforcement.

Back then, he said, the California Highway Patrol still had a heightened presence in Isla Vista.

“It was true community policing,” said Gross, a 44-year veteran of the department. “The Foot Patrol deals with basically a new population every year.”

The Foot Patrol headquarters moved to Trigo Road, where the current makeup is 15 sheriff’s deputies (soon to be 16) and seven UC police officers.

Deputies volunteer for positions, most walking the beat that’s busiest on Friday and Saturday nights for two to three years, while UC police requires officers to serve the multijurisdictional unit on a rotating basis.

The Foot Patrol has a liaison to the Greek community, but beats aren’t otherwise assigned because everyone patrols.

In the late 1990s, when Lt. Butch Arnoldi commanded the station, he made each deputy a point person for specific stakeholders like businesses, renters, property owners and more.

Until he was reassigned three years later, Arnoldi said he saw a big change in attitude toward police — something a new community resource deputy could re-establish.

“Things don’t just happen 8 to 5 Monday through Friday,” he said. “You built that public trust back up in the community. You were actually there to help them.

“You weren’t there just to give them a citation or to arrest them.”

                                                                 •        •        •

Isla Vista Foot Patrol Deputy Karen McCormick patrols the seaside community, interacting with people she meets on the street wherever she goes. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)
Isla Vista Foot Patrol Deputy Karen McCormick patrols the seaside community, interacting with people she meets on the street wherever she goes. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Hiring a community resource deputy was on the back burner for years, but the push gained momentum last year when Isla Vista endured rioting during Deltopia, a nearby gang rape and the massacre of six UCSB students by a deranged college dropout.

Everyone called for change, and UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang pledged a larger role in the community where so many students live.

The university hired more UC police officers and provides up to eight additional officers in Isla Vista every week, Thursday through Sunday nights.

UCSB also paid for more lighting, sidewalks and fencing in parks along Del Playa Drive, a primary party location.

A report released by the UCSB Foundation Trustees’ Advisory Committee on Isla Vista Strategies​ recommended more uniform community policing training and resources.

The sheriff asked county supervisors for an Isla Vista community resource deputy, an idea Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr championed as representative of the area.

Letters of support poured in from UCSB’s Associated Students and the Isla Vista Recreation & Park District, noting an unbalanced growth between population and law enforcement.

Community resource deputies serve Goleta and Solvang, but each city pays for them.

“Isla Vista is a very unique place,” Brown said. “It’s a community that has a turnover of the majority of its population every four years. Establishing relationships and getting to know them is made a lot more difficult because of that.”

Out of the fire came support. The Board of Supervisors allocated $114,000 for the resource deputy.

Likely to be dressed in khakis and a polo shirt with the sheriff’s crest instead of a green or tan uniform, the resource deputy will be armed but focused more on community relations than writing tickets.

“There are ways we can make an impact in Isla Vista,” Gross said. “I hope we find the right person. He or she is going to be very, very busy.”

                                                                 •        •        •

Now that funding has been approved for the Isla Vista Foot Patrol’s first-ever community resource deputy, the agency is about to embark on a weeks-long interviewing process to find the right person for the job. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)
Now that funding has been approved for the Isla Vista Foot Patrol’s first-ever community resource deputy, the agency is about to embark on a weeks-long interviewing process to find the right person for the job. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

The perception of law enforcement in Isla Vista might already be on the mend.

Student residents recently took part in a Foot Patrol “thank you” video filmed by UCSB’s Mu Delta fraternity.

“I think the main body of the I.V. community sees the police’s appearance through a negative lens,” said Will Mehring, a second-year pre-med major and Mu Delta member.

“Our goal in this was to shift the perspective to a feeling of safety and relief when the Foot Patrol and UCPD are seen. I think that the officers do an outstanding job.”

Plastino hopes a community resource deputy will lay a foundation for the future, staying longer than two years, when some I.V. deputies get burnt out on the job.

“To build a connection, to understand the public, you need to really think long term,” he said. “We’re looking for people who can talk to others; can see other creative ways of accomplishing goals and tasks.”

Plastino will begin a weeks-long process to review candidates in July, letting community members help decide who will be selected to start in late July or early August.

“This was a grassroots effort by the community,” he said. “They did all the work. They should absolutely have a say.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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