Santa Barbara Police Department community service officers Michaela Bebernes and Caitlin Kearns were walking State Street on Tuesday just before lunch when they spotted a young man sitting on the sidewalk, exactly where a nearby business owner had reported him earlier in the day.
The man, who told the pair he was from Oregon and had been living on the streets in Santa Barbara since last December, was holding a sign that read “broke and hungry” and was sitting between two newspaper stands just outside of the Starbucks coffee shop at State and Victoria streets.
Bebernes explained to the man that a local business owner had filed a complaint about people loitering and panhandling in that location, and that sitting on the sidewalk was in violation of the municipal code.
She asked the man to move along to another location, and Kearns suggested a nearby park where he could sit for a while.
“It’s a free country,” he responded.
Bebernes explained that though she couldn’t force him to leave, she could issue a citation, which would require him to appear in court and pay a fine.
Ultimately, that’s just what she did, and the man picked up his cardboard sign and backpack and walked away.
Before the citation was given, Kearns also asked if the man was aware of the local resources available to homeless residents, to which the man responded bluntly, “I don’t really care about that.”
A woman who had emerged from Starbucks saw the exchange and introduced herself to the officers, stating that she, too, was a State Street business owner and that “there’s always someone” panhandling in that space outside the coffee shop.
Both officers gave the woman their business cards with cell numbers on them.
“Feel free to give us a call,” Kearns said.
That’s exactly what the new community service officers hope downtown businesses will do when they need enforcement of municipal codes in the State Street corridor.
For the past five weeks, five new community service officers have been walking State Street, reaching out to local businesses and patrolling the area.
They’ve had some successes, even though they were just last week given the authority to begin handing out citations should the situation call for it.
Last fall, Santa Barbara’s City Council approved $150,000 in funding for community service officers that would have the authority to issue citations, wear uniforms similar to sworn police officers and would act as a visible security presence for the downtown area.
Downtown business owners applauded the move, saying that they’d become increasingly concerned about aggressive panhandling in the area and its effect on people walking and shopping in the area.
The CSOs are different from the community service liaisons that wear yellow shirts and interact with downtown business owners, acting as “the eyes and ears of the Police Department” but don’t actually issue citations.
The CSOs are able to enforce low-level violations and issue citations, and are primarily looking for municipal code violations, such as open containers of alcohol, loitering and aggressive panhandling, and parking violations.
They’re also building a rapport with people on the street as well as with local business owners.
Noozhawk met with all five of the new officers on Tuesday.
Huy Nguyen, Janeth Villarreal, Rudy Ramirez, Kearns and Bebernes are part of the new group of officers that the public may spot working on the streets. Another hire is in the works.
They’re in charge of patrolling from the 1300 block of State Street — near the Arlington Theater — to where Highway 101 passes over State Street.
If doing a 10-hour shift, the CSOs can be walking as much as 15 miles a day, and they see a lot while walking on foot.
They wear slate blue uniformed shirts that have a “Santa Barbara Police” patch on the arm and they don’t carry handcuffs or weapons, though they do have the power to arrest and detain suspects while they wait for a sworn officer to arrive and bring someone into custody if need be.
Kearns did just that earlier in the day Tuesday when she ran into a homeless man in a city parking lot who had drugs on him, in violation of his probation.
Part of the job also requires the officers to have an approach more similar to that of social worker than cop.
Earlier that day, Kearns and Bebernes had checked in with a homeless man sitting on a bench on lower State Street, who looked as if he was sleeping
When the pair asked the man how he was doing, he responded “not good” and explained that he had diabetes and that his blood sugar was low.
Knowing that the man could slip into a diabetic coma if unattended, the officers were able to call an ambulance so that the man could receive medical attention.
“I’m going to treat you as a person who deserves my respect,” Bebernes said of her approach.
While the two were walking up State Street, a skateboarder rode through the Carrillo intersection on the opposite side of the street, and Kearns called out to him that no skateboarding is allowed, pointing to the brown signs along the street that prohibit the activity.
She approached another man sitting with a basket of his possessions on the planter outside of the Marshall’s Store on State Street, engaged him and asked him if he can find somewhere else to sit.
“Every day it’s a little bit different,” Kearns said.
The businesses they’ve spoken with are “very positive,” Bebernes said, adding that officials from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Rite Aid on that block have commended the presence of CSOs.
The officers are planning to make visits to every business on State Street in their patrol area to introduce themselves as well as give out their personal phone numbers, should business owners need to report anything.