On a Friday night, a man gets punched in the face on the corner of Laurel Street and Pacific Avenue in front of Bonesio liquor store. Incidents like this fall under the jurisdiction of First Alarm, a private security company hired by the city of Santa Cruz to ward against disorderly conduct and violations of downtown ordinances. First Alarm security guards began their service in September, and their contract has been extended to the end of this year.
The guards are not permitted to make arrests or give out fines, only to make “contacts,” of which they have made over 1,100 in the past month alone. They do not carry guns or tasers. Instead, they are in direct radio contact with the Santa Cruz Police Department at all times.
The First Alarm program costs the police department approximately $5,000 per month. The SCPD views it as a more cost-efficient way to provide safety in the downtown area while the police department fills its eight empty positions. Zach Friend, spokesman for the SCPD, said that the extra uniformed presence has been a positive but temporary solution to “beef up” downtown security in the interim.
“We’ve filled four of the positions and interviews, and background checks have begun on the other four,” Friend said. “It takes nearly a year to have an officer make it through the entire process [application, interviews, background, medical, psych, polygraph, training program] before they are patrolling on their own.”
Mike Marcell, a First Alarm employee who patrols downtown on the corner of Laurel Street and Pacific Avenue, describes his job as that of a filter between the public and the police.
“I try and keep people from the system if I can help it, not if they deserve it — I mean, if they’re really being unruly, then maybe they need to go to jail,” Marcell said. “I know this tough guy security guard and everything, and he goes, ‘I was involved in seven arrests,’ and then I go, ‘Last weekend I prevented seven arrests.’”
The same First Alarm guards have been assigned to downtown areas each week in the effort to establish more of a community feel.
“We owe it to our community to look at innovative approaches to addressing crime downtown, especially in times of declining resources,” said Santa Cruz Police Chief Kevin Vogel in a prepared statement concerning the matter.
Marcell also noted that in these times of declining resources, the First Alarm solution may even be a financial boon for the SCPD.
“They’re glad to have it because they’re making money at it,” he said. “If SCPD wants enforcement around and they use First Alarm guards, they have to pay a lot less than if they were to bring in Watsonville cops for an event or something, actual cops. But from the county they get the same amount per man, so they’re making more money by hiring more security guards than cops.”
Some of the community and downtown shop owners have welcomed the prevention of arrests.
Sophia Harris, an employee at Asana, a teahouse on Lincoln Street off of Pacific Avenue, said she is relieved that there are people who are more like “walk-around cops,” who create a more friendly presence and enforce the rules before serious measures need to be taken.
“It is important for me that there is enforcement. There are valid concerns, especially when working in downtown,” Harris said. “Since I work with food, I don’t want anyone smoking around.”
Harris said she feels like a large weight has been lifted off of many employees’ backs, now that they do not have to worry about enforcement themselves.
“I don’t want to be anyone’s babysitter,” she said. “It’s not my job to enforce the laws here.”