[ Santa Cruz Police Department spying and infiltration
of private planning meetings for the 2005 Last Night DIY Parade were exposed by various community members, including Santa Cruz Indymedia. ]
As outrage erupts across the nation over the perception that police officers are considered to be above the law, it seems appropriate for us to consider issues of police-community relations in our own town. Here as elsewhere, the most successful policing comes through building trusting and respectful relations with the community.
Unfortunately, there are numerous cases in which Santa Cruz Police Department leaders have strayed from their role as law enforcers, instead engaging in political smears and unfair profiling and harassment. This makes it more difficult to trust in their objectivity and commitment to serve everyone, and fosters an adversarial rather than cooperative relationship with many community members.
One recent example was Deputy Chief Steve Clark’s attack on City Council candidate Leonie Sherman, labeling her as an anarchist for participating in non-violent protests like hanging a banner opposing the World Trade Organization, and suggesting that she is a danger to the community and to local businesses. A few weeks later, when an anonymous emailer threatened mass shooting at Santa Cruz High, Clark again strayed from the facts, using the fear of violence to smear unrelated political activists, stating, “These kind of incidents rally the hacktivist crowd.” In both cases it seems clear that Clark was not basing his comments on fact, but rather abusing his position to smear those he perceives as political enemies.
Back in the ‘90s Clark harassed activist John Malkin who was serving on the Citizen Police Review Board, making false statements about him, investigating his political work (without any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing), and later threatening to publicize embarrassing information. A formal complaint on the matter was never investigated. This was after Clark tried to intimidate the City Council into not setting up the Review Board in the first place, stating at a Council meeting, “If you do this, I am going to hold each and every one of you personally responsible.”
Such incidents have a long history at the SCPD, and are not limited to Clark. When activists organized a fun, family-friendly New Year’s Parade in 2005, the police spied on them with undercover officers, leading to a small scandal for the department. In 2010, a handful of masked rioters smashed windows downtown. Although no one knows who committed the vandalism, the SCPD used the opportunity to smear the SubRosa Café, with Deputy Chief Rick Martinez claiming that the police had raided SubRosa, including kicking in their door. In fact, no such raid ever happened, nor was SubRosa nor any of its members ever investigated or charged with a crime. Again in 2012, the SCPD used smear tactics against Occupy Santa Cruz, spreading false rumors about ringworm and scabies outbreaks in the camp.
These attacks on political activists have no place in a free society. As with the Red Scares of times past, the SCPD has used false information and association to portray lawful dissenting voices in a bad light. It is especially troubling to know that the person responsible for many of these smears — Steve Clark, the Department’s official spokesperson —is also in charge of the SCPD’s program of mass surveillance: the use of automated license plate readers, which our local ACLU chapter has denounced as an invasion of privacy.
When repeated actions on the part of police managers violate the trust of the community, it undermines faith in law enforcement and government as a whole. For the benefit of the community and the department itself, the city should help rebuild that trust by holding the police accountable. One aspect of that must be disciplining officers who abuse their authority, including Deputy Chief Clark.
Steve Schnaar lives in Santa Cruz.