Some People Just Talk; Some People Walk the Walk: How SoHum Is Dealing With Crime
“There’s a needle here,” she warned. Sutherland and eight others were walking as part of their night patrol after their first town meeting this year.
The group gathered round the needle. One group member opened a large pack containing everything from food and hand warmers for the homeless to garbage bags meant to contain discarded items snapped up with their trash grabbers. Out came a sealed container designed to hold needles dropped by drug addicts in town.
“Number 52,” said Melissa Sutherland, sister to Tara. “I’ll have to buy another pencil.” As a visual reminder of the dangers they clear from the town streets, she puts a pencil in a large jar every time they find a discarded needle. This September when LOP (Locals on Patrol) have been patrolling Garberville for one entire year, she plans to donate the pencils to students at the local school.
Earlier that evening, the group had met with Supervisor Estelle Fennell, Sergeant Jesse Taylor of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, Connie Beck of the Department of Health and Human Services and about 75 of their fellow townsfolk. They had a list of concerns they wanted to address. Chief among them was the increasing public signs of drug use in the town.
Tara Sutherland, one of the founding members of the group which started last fall said, “People are shooting up in daylight on the streets.”
“We can watch drug runners come from certain rooms” in the motels, said business owner Beth Allen.
John Earp who runs the 76 station in town complained, “I have customers come in saying, ‘What is going on in town. We were scared to come in…I wouldn’t even have stopped if I had known it was like this.'”
“That affects your business,” he added.
“We used to be a tourist town,” said Beth Allen. “Now our Yelp reviews for our town are terrible. Our tourist business has dropped off.”
But LOP working in conjunction with Fennel, Taylor and Beck is trying to address the issues.
One possible solution to motels harboring drug sellers and other law breakers was a proposed ordinace that could be passed for the unincorporated areas of the county such as Garberville similar to the one that closed the Blue Heron Motel in Eureka–an ordinance that would allow for the assessment of fines on motels that had too many law enforcement issues.
Another solution proposed was putting together a MIST unit (Mobile Intervention Service Team.) Fennell said that with that unit in place, officers and experts in mental health come to the area and become more deeply involved. They look for people with serious mental health issues and build trust with clients over time. “They just get to know that person” and their issues, Supervisor Fennell said.
John Anderson, a Mental Health Clinician stationed in the community pointed out that sometimes when services are presented, there have been few willing to take help. “I’ve been out on our streets along with my case manager…offering services,” he said, “but the response, if any, is very, very minimal.”
Sergeant Taylor said that Sheriff’s Department had just gone through “a massive hiring phase.” He explained, “Our staffing level is improving.” In addition, he was working on getting more officers for the area. “I’m Southern Humboldt’s biggest cheerleader,” he stated.
To the crowd’s pleased astonishment, he announced that officers like to work this area. “Garberville is a coveted spot,” he said.
The board of LOP agreed that over the last few months the Sheriff’s Office was more visible and more responsive.
“We have noticed a huge difference,” said Tara Sutherland. “Thank you for that.” But she also noted during the meeting that the area needed a resident deputy and “we really need 24 hour coverage.”
After the meeting as the crowd drifted away, Sutherland and LOP donned their green Locals on Patrol vests. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday they gather in Garberville at 6 p.m. for a patrol through the town. On Wednesday, they meet at three when children get off the school bus. Because of the meeting, they headed out on patrol later than normal.
Sutherland, four months pregnant, didn’t appear to hesitate when seeing people in violation of the group’s standards. She admonished firmly but politely two men sitting on a railing in front of a business.
When the man offered excuses, one of the members of LOP pointed to a damaged part of the rail and stated that the business owner didn’t want people sitting there as it could harm his building.
When the man didn’t move quickly, another member asked him about his instrument case. When he opened it to reveal a violin, the woman complimented it and spoke to him quietly about its beauty.
Eventually, the two men left. Though they obviously would have preferred to remain where they were, the interaction between LOP and loiterers was non-confrontational.
As the group walked through town they were greeted once by residents with applause and shouted encouragement. Sometimes community members hand them money to help with expenses, said Tara Sutherland. Earlier that evening at the meeting, she had told the gathering that many in the community were angry and ready to strike out because of the deteriorating situation in their town. She was worried about violence and that, she said, is why LOP was organized. “We are the final step before the vigilantes come out,” she declared.
During the meeting, Sutherland had repeatedly requested support. “Be our backbone,” she asked the assembled crowd. Without community support, she said, LOP would not be able to function. Sutherland addressed the gathered business owners asking them to step up and support the group’s efforts to move loiterers out of doorways and off railings by coming outside their businesses and standing in solidarity beside the group members.
“We want [those violating the group’s standards] to know our community is backing us,” she said. She also asked for community members to join the patrols so they have the required four person team.
Right now the small group seems strong. The gathering on Monday was relatively large for such a little town.
But whether or not the Locals on patrol will get the support needed to keep the group vibrant and a force for order in the community depends a lot on who is willing to help. As local resident Traci Bear Thiele said, “Some people just talk and some people walk the walk.”
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