True Crime Stories
A historical look at myth and crime in Seaside.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Perceptions count. Seaside earned a reputation as a center for drugs and violent crime in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s that persists today. It was called a “war zone” in media accounts, and considered “scary” and “a place you just didn’t go to” by residents on the Peninsula. Statistics from FBI crime reports bear that out.
The myth that arose from the statistics was that because there was high crime in Seaside, the city was a community of criminals to be avoided at all costs – and that crime levels remain high in the city. Not so – on both counts. The other misperception was that other cities of the Peninsula were free of the drugs and crime that were so apparent in Seaside. In fact, crime was high in the 1980s and 1990s everywhere, in some part due to economic pressures nationally and at the state and local levels, and also to the influx of drugs, particularly of crack cocaine.
The reality behind the myth is that Seaside’s residents and business community worked hand in hand with its police department and city government throughout the decades of the ‘80s and ‘90s to effectively confront criminals, and, by the end of the 1990s, reduce crime significantly. They used innovative and grassroots strategies to do so.
The misperception was that other cities of the Peninsula were free of the drugs and crime that were so apparent in Seaside.
Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation crime reports from 1975 through 2004 showed high levels of crime, especially violent crime, in Seaside, particularly between 1980 and 1990. However, it must be kept in mind that Monterey also had high crime rates and high levels of prostitution and drug use, especially in the areas of town near the Monterey Conference Center and the newly built hotels along the waterfront and Cannery Row. Monterey, despite high crime rates in the same decades, did not receive the same negative press that Seaside did. Because crime in Seaside was often related to violence and use of guns, media attention to crime in Seaside overwhelmed everything else that was going on there, unlike in Monterey, where crime was reported but not a focal point of media attention.
FBI crime reports show similar rates of violent crime in Monterey and Seaside between 1974 and 1979. In fact, Seaside had fewer robberies in 1974-75 and 1978-79; fewer rates of aggravated assault in 1974-75; and fewer burglaries in the five-year period than Monterey. Homicide rates were also comparable, but there were fewer homicides in Seaside than in Monterey in 1978-79. Twice as many rapes were committed in Monterey in the 1974-75 reporting period as in Seaside, with comparable rates between the two cities in the following years. Motor vehicle theft was far higher in Monterey.
The next five years show the impact of crack cocaine on crime rates. It is important to note that although Monterey’s population increased by 3,000 in this period, Seaside added well over 10,000 new residents, 8,000 between 1982 and 1985 alone. These are the years when rates of rape, robbery, and aggravated assault increased in Seaside. However, in spite of the enormous population jump, Monterey and Seaside had about the same number of homicides, burglaries, and thefts. Monterey’s rate of motor vehicle thefts always exceeded Seaside’s.
Although the local media readily reported instances of violent crime in Seaside, the vigorous response of city government in these critical years, particularly of the police department, went largely unnoticed. Under Mayor Glenn Olea, military patrols partnered with Seaside police to control military related criminal activity. Lance McClair, City Manager Charles McNeely and Police Chief Ben Cooper initiated a “Comprehensive Crime Reduction Program” in 1983 that added two new police officers and a Crime Prevention specialist to the rolls of the department. In 1984, the department included a Juvenile Program and a We-Tip Program to its efforts at crime reduction. As a result, by the end of 1984, burglaries had been reduced by 17 percent. In 1985 grand theft reports decreased by 29 percent. There was also an increase in the rate of felony arrests by 35 percent in one year, 1984-1985. The police department initiated special patrols in both Dave Cutino Park and the Del Monte Manor, two areas of the city hard hit by drugs. More than 80 people were arrested on narcotics charges in 1985 due to special undercover “buy” programs initiated by police and, equally importantly, with the help of citizen volunteers.
The year 1986 was particularly bad for Seaside, in terms of violent crime, but it is important to emphasize that although crime rates increased, felony arrests also increased by 29 percent. The Crime Prevention Program was expanded to include more community awareness efforts on local television and radio, Neighborhood Watch Programs, and a special hotline by the late 1980s. The Seaside Citizens Anti-Crime Patrol, also known as the Yellow Jackets, was formed by a group of community activists in 1988. This group, led by Councilwoman Darlene Burkleo and community activists Ewalker James and Nancy Amos, included as many as 60 Seaside residents and business owners. They worked in shifts, and walked the streets of Seaside wearing bright yellow jackets. According to Nancy Amos, “We recorded everything. We wrote down car licenses, descriptions of what we saw. We had a police officer either with us or in a van nearby. If he saw something he could act on – he did. [Then] we would summarize what we observed and turn it over to the community liaison at the police department and they would use that information to get search warrant to help them in their investigations… Our goal was to get more community awareness. To let people know that [they] could do something, and that the police department couldn’t [eliminate crime all] by themselves.”
Another group led by Ewalker James and others formed in the same year, 1988, and was called Citizens Against Drugs and Crime in Seaside. They met the second Wednesday of each month at Oldemeyer Center and invited the community to hear speakers from law enforcement and also ex-criminals to promote better understandings of crime and ways to fight it. By 1990, Neighborhood Watch programs expanded from six in 1988 to 14, and the police department distributed pamphlets to residents such as one that gave step-by-step instructions on how to report crime.
A drug enforcement program was initiated in 1988-89 with the addition of two drug enforcement officers. This led to a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of arrests, from 50 in 1986-87 to 90 in 1988-89. The police department added another five police officers and investigators to its staff by 1990 and also began a Special Operations Detail in the “war against drugs.” Further, the department reduced response time for emergencies to less than four minutes.
By 1992, rates of violent crime in Seaside were reduced slightly from previous years. Burglary rates were three times higher in Monterey than in Seaside. Monterey’s rates of aggravated assault quadrupled between 1990 and 1992. Theft was also consistently much higher in Monterey than in Seaside. Yet, Seaside was not given nearly enough attention or credit for reducing crime rates and was still considered a dangerous city on the Peninsula in the early 1990s. Twenty-three additional Neighborhood Watch groups were established in Seaside in 1991 and 10 more in 1992. The police department also established a Police Explorers Program for young people between the ages of 14 and 21 in 1991, which became actively involved in community activities. Seven new officers were hired in 1992, all of whom were members of minority groups. A Canine Unit was added in 1991 to be used for narcotic detection, this time with the support of citizens. A Critical Incidence Team was added the same year to respond to high-risk, life-threatening situations.
In the aftermath of the closure of Fort Ord, Seaside lost population initially, only to gain it in a different demographic as whites, Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants surged into the city. Between 1993 and 1995, when the first wave of Mexican and Mexican-American immigrants settled into Seaside, residents initiated events such as “Take Back the Park,” inviting neighbors, new and old, to bring food to share and join together in creating a sense of community. They invited police officers to attend and by their very presence “ran the drug dealers out of Capra Park.”
Police Chief Anthony Sollecito was particularly effective in bringing an end to drug related crime in Seaside. He became Chief on Oct. 1, 2001 and was instrumental in creating an increased community-based policing relationship by expanding the School Resource Officer program through a federal grant written by current Chief Stephen Cercone which implemented the Mobile Community Substation. His efforts allowed grassroots community organizations such as the Yellow Jackets to disband. As a result, by the early years of the 21st century, statistics show truly dramatic reductions in crime rates in Seaside, especially with regard to violent crime, that continue into the present day. In the years 2005 and 2006, for example, Seaside had no homicides whatsoever. Chief Cercone has continued Sollecito’s policy of close community relationships to combat crime, especially related to gangs or drug use.
It was not just the misperception that Seaside alone among Peninsula cities was a center for criminal activity that was problematic, however. It was that this perception was racialized. Crime was associated simply with being African American, and now, as the demographics shift, with being Mexican American. Both communities are as eminently law-abiding as white communities are. Black or Hispanic criminals do not represent their communities any more than white criminals represent white communities.
Myths and perceptions about life in Seaside have been slow to change with the reality of low crime rates, but change they must. The city should be and is increasingly known as another typical Monterey Peninsula tourist destination rather than the center for drugs, gangs and violence.