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Police Chief Sanchez Addresses Homelessness, Other Issues Impacting Tourism

Santa Barbara enjoying less crime overall but more burglaries, which have led to some arrests

Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez on Tuesday told hospitality industry leaders that overall crime is down, but burglaries are up. He also asked for patience in dealing with homelessness issues.
Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez on Tuesday told hospitality industry leaders that overall crime is down, but burglaries are up. He also asked for patience in dealing with homelessness issues. (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

The burning question Tuesday at a luncheon featuring hospitality industry leaders and Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez as keynote speaker was poignant yet predictable.

What should we tell our visitors who see homeless people on State Street and wonder what’s being done to fix the panhandling problem?

“We’re managing it as best we can,” Sanchez told a room full of people from the local tourism, business and hospitality industries gathered at the Montecito Country Club.

The Greater Santa Barbara Lodging & Restaurant Association-sponsored event was dubbed “Santa Barbara Safe and Clean Streets With Police Chief Cam Sanchez,” a follow up to a summit the organization hosted more than a year ago.

Mayor Helene Schneider offered a few opening comments about the drought and upcoming district elections before acknowledging the frustrations felt locally due to homeless people loitering on public streets — an issue often involving mental illness.

The main event, however, was waiting for Sanchez to comment on public-safety issues and to answer questions from those in attendance.

Homelessness dominated much of discussion, and the police chief entering his 16th year on the job commended the recent addition of 16 community-service officers on State Street, bringing the total number hired to address the issue to 17.

Officers have been waking homeless camp occupants at 3:30 a.m. to clean up areas, either trying to reunite them with family — some 20-30 successful cases — or directing those who want help to services.

Those with warrants out for their arrest are taken to County Jail.

Another enforcement tactic involves taking unlicensed and unregistered dogs — mostly pit bulls — away from so-called, young urban travelers and forcing them to pay to get them back or to move on.

Sanchez encouraged anyone who sees aggressive panhandling to call 9-1-1, but asked the rest to call a non-emergency dispatch phone number (805.882.8900) so community-service officers could at least talk to and keep tabs on local homeless.

Mostly, he asked for patience.

“The problem will never go away,” Sanchez said of homelessness. “We can never arrest ourselves out of that issue. We have to deal with them.

“We also need to understand that these are human beings. At the end of the day, we are dealing with people with needs, and if they’re not committing crime, we need to help them.”

He remarked that a sad number of homeless in Santa Barbara were veterans of recent wars and called the fact they didn’t have homes “shameful.”

Sanchez asked that people buy panhandlers and so-called young “urban travelers” food instead of giving them money.

“Handing them money becomes an issue because now they know exactly where to stand for the next two years,” he said.

Overall, Sanchez said crime is down in every category except burglaries.

Violent crime decreased by 45 percent and gang crime is down 75 percent — a fact he attributed to preventative efforts such as the department’s Police Explorers program or the Police Activities League, which has some 2,000 young participants.

Nearly 80 percent of residential burglaries happen because doors or windows are left open and unlocked, Sanchez said, noting that officers have helped net a dozen arrests related to a string of burglaries in the past two months.

Other burglars are casing open houses or “staged” homes ready to sell so they can return later.

Sanchez said the department has hired a few new officers in the last few weeks, but still falls short of a full force, partially because not all recruits pass background checks.

Graffiti and loud music coming from downtown bars at night were other issues on the department’s radar.

When asked about officer morale, Sanchez said “morale is a choice” and that you can’t please everyone with every decision.

He counsels officers to be grateful to work in a place like Santa Barbara because, he said, that’s how he feels every day.

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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