Santa Cruz is a Very Dangerous Place to Live

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This first post was based on research I began in 2007.  After collecting and examining crime statistics on Santa Cruz, I shared them with city officials in 2008, including then mayor Ryan Coonerty.  I also shared the data with the board of Take Back Santa Cruz.  In 2012, in the wake of the murder of Shannon Collins, Ryan asked me to draft an article that he would submit for publication to the Santa Cruz Sentinel.   When Ryan saw the text of the original draft, he asked that we not submit it for publication, but instead meet with city officials in private to discuss the data, and possible solutions.  During this meeting, and after, I was again discouraged from publishing the data, with the explanation that this sort of information could hurt Santa Cruz economically, and contribute to a ‘downward spiral’.  Eventually, I worked with Jason Hoppin at the Santa Cruz Sentinel on his excellent article on crime in Santa Cruz AT RISK: Santa Cruz crime among state’s highest.  The text of my own, original draft article is below, with some small edits (parenthetical and in italics), and the inclusion of the recently published 2012 UCR crime data for Santa Cruz.

I was born and raised in Santa Cruz.  I went to university in Europe in 1991, and lived and worked there for 15 years.  When I returned in 2006 I was immediately struck by how unsafe Santa Cruz felt.  I quickly gave up the practice of walking home from work at Lightsurf along the San Lorenzo River levee.  Santa Cruz felt less safe than large cities where I had spent many years.  It felt less safe than London or New York.

The impression prompted me to do some statistical research, and what I found was shocking.   The FBI curates a large repository of crime statistics, collected and reported upward from the local level by law enforcement agencies in a program known as ‘Uniform Crime Reporting’ (UCR).   Statistics from 1995 to 2012 can be found here http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/ucr.

Before I dive in and share data that shows Santa Cruz to be one of the most dangerous cities in California, a little explanation and words of caution about UCR statistics, and the methods I use to present them.

The FBI warns against ranking local agencies based on UCR stats, in large part because demographics can be so varied between regions:  age, income, commuter patterns, availability of local services, population density and degree of urbanization.  Many factors play a role outside the control of law enforcement.  FBI guidelines can be found here – http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/ucr-statistics-their-proper-use – and argue convincingly that UCR data is not very useful beyond a simple comparison of crime numbers.   I have spoken with senior law enforcement officials and members of the city council in Santa Cruz, including the current mayor, and it is clear that Santa Cruz has a few characteristics that drive its crime figures.  It is a tourist destination, and the population can double on a warm summer weekend, although these are characteristics it shares with many seaside towns.  It is the county seat, and houses the county jail.  Services are overburdened and local ordinances are lenient compared to adjacent regions.  There is an inordinately high concentration of places to buy alcohol.  And, most strikingly, Santa Cruz County Superior Court data for felony case filings vs. dispositions (resolved cases) vs. convictions fall far outside the norm for the state of California according to the Judicial Council of California (note – since sharing this information in spring of 2013 with the Santa Cruz Sentinel, it was passed on to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff and to the Office of the District Attorney, both of whom pushed back against the accuracy of the numbers, although corrected data was not made available.  The Judicial Council of California publishes this data, correct or not, on its Web site, URL inline below.  Relevant are table 8a and 8b, ‘Felonies: Method of Disposition’ and ‘Felonies: Disposition by Outcome’).  In 2009-2010 Santa Cruz County Superior Court had a percentage of reported total felony convictions vs. total felony filings of 16%.  As a comparison, neighboring counties’ percentages are as follows:  San Mateo 69.41%; Santa Clara 68.83%; Monterey 51.67%; and as a benchmark LA county is 77.94% and San Francisco is 52.11%.  Santa Cruz County Superior Court’s reported disposition rate is 47% of total felony filings, compared to 95%-100%+ for the previously listed counties.    http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/2011CourtStatisticsReport.pdf   Additionally, Santa Cruz County has an inordinately high percentage of mentally ill and homeless.  According to 2009 (and 2011) statistics compiled in a statewide project on homelessness, the overall rate of homelessness in Santa Cruz County is 2 to 3 times higher than adjacent counties:  mental illness, including depression and PTSD, is approximately 50% among Santa Cruz homeless, (http://www.santacruzhealth.org/pdf/2009SantaCruzHomelessReport.pdf  and 2011 Report is here) and (most significantly, with relation to property crime rates) substance abuse approximately 30%. (Note- nationwide, rates of homelessness do not generally correlate strongly to property crime.  BUT, the statistical profile of homelessness in Santa Cruz is almost unique, with a much higher percentage of out-of-county homeless coming to SC than in other areas, and a very large concentration of addicted and mentally ill.  Rates of addiction, drug abuse, and property crime appear to correlate strongly.  I will publish a follow up post with national and local homeless data, rates of addiction/substance abuse and crime correlation).

For these reasons, I am not going to infer too much from the data beyond the obvious facts:  the city of Santa Cruz has some of the highest crime rates of any city in the state.

The UCR program reports crime at the city level in 10 categories:  Violent Crime, Murder and Non-Negligent Homicide, Forcible Rape, Robbery, Aggravated Assault, Property Crime, Burglary, Larceny-Theft, Motor Vehicle Theft, Arson.

Here is the good news:  your car is relatively safe in Santa Cruz.  Not really safe, but out of 170 cities with 50,000+ population reporting in 2011, Santa Cruz only ranks 90th in auto theft.  Your car probably won’t get stolen. (Note – the rate of motor vehicle theft jumped dramatically in 2012, from 305 per 100K population to 433, but Santa Cruz only climbed to 82 in the statewide rankings).

Now, the bad news:  nothing else is safe here.

I compared crime rates from 2009-2012 between Santa Cruz and cities with nearly identical demographics (age, income, population) and rates of crime in Santa Cruz were 3x-5x higher across the board.  I then compared Santa Cruz to traditionally high crime areas, thinking perhaps Santa Cruz might look better in comparison.  Compton, California is a case study in violent crime.  And Santa Cruz exceeds Compton in 2012 per 100,000 population in property crime, burglary, larceny-theft, and has comparable levels of aggravated assault, and 60% of Compton’s overall level of violent crime (72% of Compton’s level of violent crime in 2011).   The same picture arises if you compare Santa Cruz to blighted communities in the central valley, such as Stockton and Fresno.  Santa Cruz beats major cities, for example Los Angeles and San Francisco, on a per 100,000 basis in nearly all categories, and often by large margins.

I tried casting the statistical net a little wider, and looked at how Santa Cruz compares to every single city in the state with a population between 50,000 and 62,000 (approximately 40 cities surveyed).  Here are the comparative 2009-2012 results by UCR category.

Violent crime

2009 Santa Cruz is 1st in California

2010 Santa Cruz is 1st by a margin of nearly 30%

2011 Santa Cruz is 2nd

2012 Santa Cruz is 1st

Murder and Non-Negligent Homicide -

2009 Santa Cruz is 7th

2010 Santa Cruz climbs to 3rd

2011 Santa Cruz drops to 26th

2012 Santa Cruz climbs to 9th

Forcible Rape

2009 Santa Cruz is 1st

2010 Santa Cruz is 2nd

 2011 Santa Cruz is 2nd

2012 Santa Cruz is 1st                                                                  

Robbery -

2009 Santa Cruz is 10th

2010 Santa Cruz is 4th

2011 Santa Cruz is 5th

2012 Santa Cruz is 10th

Aggravated Assault -

2009 Santa Cruz is 1st

2010 Santa Cruz is 1st

2011 Santa Cruz is 1st

2012 Santa Cruz is 1st

Property Crime -

2009 Santa Cruz is 1st

2010 Santa Cruz is 1st

2011 Santa Cruz is 1st

2012 Santa Cruz is 1st

Burglary -

2009 Santa Cruz is 6th

2010 Santa Cruz is 6th

2011 Santa Cruz is 5th

2012 Santa Cruz is 9th

Larceny-Theft -

2009 Santa Cruz is 1st

2010 Santa Cruz is 1st

2011 Santa Cruz is 1st

2012 Santa Cruz is 1st

Motor Vehicle Theft -

2009 Santa Cruz is 19th

2010 Santa Cruz is 20th

2011 Santa Cruz is 16th

2012 Santa Cruz is 14th

Arson-

2009 Santa Cruz is 5th

2010 Santa Cruz is 4th

2011 Santa Cruz is 11th

2012 Santa Cruz is 4th

I then compared Santa Cruz to Californian cities with 50,000 population and above.  In 2011, among 170 cities surveyed, Santa Cruz was 8th in Violent Crime, 10th in Forcible Rape, 6th in Aggravated Assault, not far behind Oakland, Richmond, Compton and Stockton; in Property Crime and in Larceny-Theft Santa Cruz was number one in the state, among all cities with 50,000 population and above.  In 2012, among 238 cities Santa Cruz was 16th in Violent Crime,  4th in Forcible Rape, 13th in Aggravated Assault, 2nd in Property Crime and 1st in Larceny Theft.

Santa Cruz is not having a ‘crime spike’ these past years.  Crime statistics have been at these levels for over 20 years.  And property crime levels are rising since 2008, and continue to rise.

Since arriving in Santa Cruz in 2006, my wife and I have been the victims of:  sexual battery, attempted home invasion (a male under the influence, with a weapon, kicked in the front door), automobile vandalism, 4 stolen bicycles, one stolen bicycle seat, and we have witnessed innumerable drug sales, fights and prostitution on a daily basis.

I am sharing this data because I hope that everyone having a discussion about crime in Santa Cruz can share a common picture of the reality of the problem.  The recent tragedies in our community have shined a light on our city’s very critical issues.  My one wish is that everyone understands the enormous risks that our law enforcement professionals face every day – not as the result of a recent ‘crime spike’, but because of a chronic, endemic problem.  Santa Cruz is now one of the most dangerous cities in the state of California, and I hope that we can all work urgently to implement clear solutions to make Santa Cruz a safe and livable city.

7 thoughts on “Santa Cruz is a Very Dangerous Place to Live

  1. Have you given any thought about running the number of officers per thousand for the city of Santa Cruz? I think you would need to look at historical staffing and I think you would need to do two sets of numbers. Authorized staffing vs actual staffing. Remember the police department was build for 120 sworn officers by 2015. After all there have been studies showing that as the number of officers per thousand changes so does the crime rate.

    • I’m actually working on this sort of data. There is a very interesting story here. Publication after New Year’s. Long story short – Santa Cruz appears to be dramatically underpoliced. Much more than it appears.

  2. I’d love to see these numbers broken down even further, i.e. by zip code or neighborhoods. I just moved to Prospect Heights and I keep hearing about how safe it is here in comparison to other neighborhoods. Data that backs that up would help me sleep better at night.

    • UCR data covers reported crimes. There are also data on conviction rates, and links on the sources page to California Judicial Council conviction rates for Santa Cruz.

  3. ….PS i lived in Brooklyn, London UK, NYC and NJ before moving out here in ’89…..the magnitude of safety that I feel being here rather than there and the actual crimes committed against me are not even comparable. Not sure how that factors in.

    • I have worked and spent much time in NYC, and lived for 7 years in London (and Paris). These places felt much safer to me than Santa Cruz. I have had more crimes committed against me in Santa Cruz than anywhere. These were among the reasons I dug into the stats, and they paint a picture of Santa Cruz as one of the most dangerous cities in California, which has been my experience.

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