Months of public outcry over crime, drug abuse and a seemingly out of control homeless population came to a head Tuesday in three hours of testimony before the Santa Cruz City Council.
The result was a vote to bring the police department, which spends $20 million on staffing, up to its full staffing level of 94 officers. It now has 86 and has had trouble finding qualified candidates.
The council also put up $50,000 to Parks and Recreation clean up crews after residents complained of garbage, pollution and needles at the Pogonip and Cowell Beach. It asked for reports from new county health director Lisa Hernandez about the needle exchange program, which has become a focus of debate.
And it set up a six-month task force to study public safety problems.
Opinions varied sharply in hours of public testimony.
Surfer Ken "Skindog" Collins called for the closure of the Homeless Services Center, which he said was nothing more than a "crack house." He said he was afraid to shop at Costco because of the homeless people camped in the neighborhood.
Councilman Don Lane, who is on the center's board, called for compassion: "Because they are homeless and a drug addict doesn't suddenly make them a non-human being in the community," he said.
The needle exchange was a hot topic. It distributes 250,000 needles a year to drug addicts. The exchange doesn't count the numbers of needles turned in and give an equal amount of new ones.
Some said that it was exacerbating the problem by helping drug users.
Emily Ager, who runs the needle exchange, which was chased off of its Lower Ocean distribution point recently after 25 years there, argued that without the exchange addicts will use drugs and share needles hastening the spread of fatal diseases.
Some people quoted a study in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, which showed that a government-run needle program in Santa Clara County distributed half as many needles as the publicly run one in Santa Cruz. Santa Clara is six times bigger but has its needle exchanges out of downtown areas that requires a one-for-one exchange of needles.
Councilwoman Lynn Robinson called for more study of the local exchange.
Several people called for more funding for drug treatment. One woman, a social worker, said that her clients feared crime at the Homeless Services Center and said that police in other cities gave homeless people bus tickets to Santa Cruz.
Deputy Police Chief Rick Martinez said that despite arrests being up 53 percent, police "can't arrest the problem away."
But he was countered by retired Police Sgt. Erik Swannack, who contended that with more police working the areas where drug users congregate, they can chase them away. (see video).
Martinez pointed to the success the city has had cleaning up homeless camps along the freeway and park at Pogonip, arresting 308 people at 243 campsites, 35 percent of them for felonies.