Watsonville Police Officers Noe Hernandez, left, and Oswaldo Larios are part of the patrol division. (Watsonville police)

Editor’s note: Santa Cruz Local digs into residents’ questions and concerns about policing in Santa Cruz County. Submit your questions

WATSONVILLE >> As a Watsonville city committee prepares to make police reform recommendations to the city council this summer, some residents have questioned Watsonville police’s budget, the department’s effectiveness and the scope of its services.  

To help inform the conversation, Santa Cruz Local dug into roughly 10 years of Watsonville police data through public records requests and other state and federal sources.

Trends at a glance
  • Calls for police service in Watsonville, which includes emergencies and non-emergencies, have fallen steadily from about 69,000 calls in 2016 to about 55,000 calls in 2020, records state.
  • Watsonville police’s budget grew from 2014 to 2020. Since 2012, the police budget’s share of the city’s General Fund has varied from roughly 34% to 47%. Those percentages exclude city sales tax money from Measure G that funded Watsonville police and firefighters.
  • Watsonville police solved a steadily greater share of violent crime cases from 2016 to 2020, according to data that police provided to the FBI. 
  • Watsonville’s city budget has allowed 72 to 78 sworn staff and 17 to 23 non-sworn staff in the police department from 2012 to 2019, records state. Actual staff numbers are slightly lower and vary often due to retirements, recruitments, injuries and other factors, police said.
  • Adult arrests peaked in 2016 with more than 2,100 and have declined through 2020. Juvenile arrests peaked in 2015 with more than 300 and have declined through 2020, according to Watsonville police’s 2020 annual report.
  • Reported crime in Watsonville dropped in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Data is not yet available for 2020.

A recent city-sponsored survey of 770 residents showed mixed views about Watsonville police. 

  • Nearly 49% of respondents said they were “very satisfied” with Watsonville police’s efforts to reduce crime, 34% said they were “somewhat satisfied” and nearly 9% said they were “not very satisfied.”
  • More than 87% of respondents said Watsonville needs to develop more programs to reduce crime, drug use and gang activity.

Police leaders and some members of Watsonville’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Policing and Social Equity said the numbers are just part of a bigger picture of how to improve public safety.

“I think the trends, they’re always going to fluctuate. It’s really hard to put our finger on why,” said Tom Sims, Watsonville’s assistant police chief. 

A decline in calls for service might have continued in 2020 because of COVID-19 shelter orders, but Sims said he did not know if that was the main reason. “Having less calls for service obviously gives our officers more free patrol time to do patrol checks,” Sims said.

Sims is expected to become Watsonville’s interim police chief later this year because Police Chief David Honda announced that he will retire July 1.

Sources:  Watsonville police, Santa Cruz Local reporting | Graphic: Stephen Baxter, Santa Cruz Local

Watsonville’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Policing and Social Equity has had at least three public meetings since December and several other private meetings. After it gathers more public input, the committee plans to bring police reform recommendations to the Watsonville City Council in August. 

During the public meetings, the committee has heard guest speakers discuss topics like police oversight methods in other cities

The committee was formed in late 2020 to “facilitate community conversations that will inform the future of policing and community services in Watsonville.” Residents called for the committee in part because of national protests related to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Watsonville Police Chief David Honda also expressed interest in forming such a committee. 

Assistant Chief Sims, Watsonville police Capt. Jorge Zamora and two other police officers are on the committee, as well as community leaders, Mayor Jimmy Dutra and City Councilmembers Francisco Estrada and Aurelio Gonzalez. 

City leaders recently hired Watsonville-based Applied Survey Research to compile already-gathered poll data and residents’ input from community meetings related to the Ad-Hoc Committee on Policing and Social Equity. Results are expected this spring. 

“The work that needs to be done is extensive and there’s a lot of people that we want to reach,” said Assistant City Manager Tamara Vides, who helps lead the Ad-Hoc committee. “We realize that we need more help than just our small city team.”

Solving crime

Watsonville police, like other law enforcement agencies, said they place more emphasis and staff time on violent crime than property crime. Violent crime, also known as “persons crime,” includes things like armed robbery, rape, assault and murder. Property crime includes things like home burglary, arson, stolen vehicles and other theft. 

Watsonville police and other law enforcement agencies must report the amount of violent crime and property crime to the FBI for its Uniform Crime Reporting Program. It also must report the number of cases “cleared” by an arrest and prosecution, or cleared by a suspect identification, gathering enough evidence for prosecution or other means

Watsonville police’s violent crime clearance rate, or share of cases solved, has increased steadily from 2016 to 2019, FBI records show. Figures from 2020 are not yet available. Cleared property crimes fell from 2016 to 2018, then rose in 2019, records show.

Sources:  Watsonville police, Santa Cruz Local reporting | Graphic: Stephen Baxter, Santa Cruz Local

Clearance rates are one gauge of how well a law enforcement agency solves crime, but the numbers are self reported. They also have independent variables — like the volume of reported crime, staff levels and luck, Sims and others have said. “If you have four homicides, and you solve all four, well, that makes your department look really good. But a lot of that could just be luck, right? Or video surveillance, or the victim knew the suspect, or whatever it is,” Sims said. 

Also, violent crime clearance rates “are higher, generally, because it’s person on person,” Sims said. “Whereas property crimes tend to be — nobody’s around when something is stolen, a car is stolen, or a theft occurs. And so generally, you don’t necessarily have an eyewitness.”

Sims added, “The violent crime is definitely investigated more quickly, and with more resources upfront. We want to make sure that every crime is investigated to the best of our ability.” 

Several Watsonville residents said they were concerned by shootings this fall. Three men were shot and two died during one weekend in October 2020, police said. At least two of the shootings were gang motivated but the cases are not connected, police said. The cases remain under investigation and no one has been arrested, according to the 2020 annual report.

Watsonville police’s 2020 annual report included other notable arrests. 

In August, a teen on High Street in Watsonville called 911 to report a man trying to break into the teen’s home. The teen hid in a bedroom. Officers arrived and arrested a 26-year-old man who tried to flee out a back gate, police said. The man had an outstanding warrant and was on probation for burglary, police said.

Police staff

The police department has grown in recent years, at least on paper. From 2012 to 2019, the Watsonville city budget has allowed from 72 to 78 sworn staff and 17 to 23 non-sworn staff in the police department, records state.

Sworn staff are armed officers, sergeants and those with higher ranks. Non-sworn staff include records clerks, administrators, parking enforcement officers, Police Service Specialists and others. Police Service Specialists can help sworn officers, perform traffic control, investigate “cold” crimes with no suspect information, or assist in situations where there is no safety risk. They also are paid less than sworn officers and save the city money, Sims said.

The number of actual staff can exceed the number of budget-authorized staff because some positions are funded by grants, city leaders said. Sources:  Watsonville police, Santa Cruz Local reporting | Graphic: Stephen Baxter, Santa Cruz Local

Although the city budget has an authorized number of sworn and non-sworn staff, Sims said the actual number can vary daily with injuries, retirements and officers in training.

Sims said Watsonville police is now “fully staffed” with 72 sworn officers and about 14 non-sworn staff. However, he said, three of those officers were just hired and have not yet attended police academy. Another four officers are in field training and are not expected to work on their own for another 12 months, Sims said. 

Sims added, “It’s just this constant revolving door that you just try to keep ahead of. It’s very difficult. But we’re not different than any other agency out there. Everybody’s doing the same thing.”

City budget

Watsonville’s current General Fund budget of about $41 million funds Watsonville police’s budget of about $21 million including grants, Measure G money and other sources, according to the city budget.

The General Fund is the most flexible part of how the total city budget can be spent. The total budget in Watsonville funds mandatory services such as water, garbage collection, roads, city administration and community services. The police and fire departments make up about 21% of the total city budget, according to city records.

Most of the police budget goes toward salaries and benefits, according to the city budget.

Sources:  City of Watsonville, Santa Cruz Local reporting | Graphic: Stephen Baxter, Santa Cruz Local

Sources:  City of Watsonville, Santa Cruz Local reporting | Graphic: Stephen Baxter, Santa Cruz Local

Voters have helped Watsonville police and firefighters at the ballot box. Measure G was a seven-year, 0.5% sales tax approved by 67.2% of city voters in 2014. It needed more than 66% of the vote to pass. Its revenue was split 60% to Watsonville police and 40% to the fire department. 

  • The police department’s annual share of Measure G revenue has ranged from about $1.2 million to $2.4 million, city records state.
  • Excluding Measure G money, 34% to 47% of the General Fund has been spent annually on the police department in the past 10 years, according to records.

Measure G money has been used in part to hire seven new police officers, two Police Service Specialists, a crime analyst, a property and evidence technician and a youth specialist to work with first-time youth offenders in the Caminos Hacia el Éxito Program, according to an annual report of the Measure G Oversight Committee

The money also has been used to buy two trucks for the Police Service Specialists and replace three patrol cars and a traffic-unit motorcycle. It also has paid for officer training, body cameras, radios, bulletproof vests and other equipment, the committee wrote. 

Sources:  City of Watsonville, Santa Cruz Local reporting | Graphic: Stephen Baxter, Santa Cruz Local

In March 2020, voters renewed the 0.5% sales tax measure with Measure Y. It needed more than 66% of the vote and received 78.6% of the vote. 

Its money will be split 54% to police, 38% to the fire department and 8% to the city’s parks and recreation department to hire staff, increase youth services and upgrade parks equipment. Some residents recently have suggested giving more Measure Y money to the city’s Parks and Community Services Department. City staff has said that it would have to return to the city voters to change the way the money is spent. 

Residents’ priorities

Santa Cruz Local interviewed about 40 Watsonville residents this summer about their priorities for the November 2020 elections. Most said they wanted more city-sponsored youth programs.

“I do believe that the Watsonville PD, overall, is doing a good job,” said Jenny Sarmiento, a member of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Policing and Social Equity. “And of course there’s a need for improvement in some areas. Because otherwise, we wouldn’t have a population of people that are feeling disconnected and are voicing so much frustration for either the treatment that they received or someone in their family.” 

Sarmiento is a former CEO of Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance and also serves on the city’s planning commission. She said money and programs should be aimed more at youths in Watsonville to help prevent crime.

“How many of these people are the ones who are committing crimes on a regular basis? And what does that say? How do we need to respond to that population, rather than increase the (police) force?” Sarmiento asked. “When it comes to jobs and education, you know, this last year has had a major negative impact on a lot of community members and families. And so it’s not time to increase the force and not invest in prevention.”

Source:  Watsonville Police Department 2020 Annual Report

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Stephen Baxter is a co-founder and editor of Santa Cruz Local. He covers Santa Cruz County government.