The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office and UCSB Police Department held a public safety awards ceremony last night to honor the performances of deputies and officers who responded to the Isla Vista mass murder of May 23, 2014. While I appreciate law enforcement’s role in protecting our community, something needs to be said about the many oversights I witnessed at the event and the greater problems they clearly represent.
I attended the ceremony as a news reporter with every intention of writing an article covering the event and seeing it on the front page of the Nexus the following morning. Being a reporter, I scanned the audience in search of students to bombard after the ceremony to ask for comment. My goal was simply to bring student voice to my planned article. I did not see a single student in the audience — just officials, their families and public figures or their representatives making obligatory appearances. I grew uneasy trying to understand how an event pertaining to something that affected UCSB more than anything could entirely lack student presence.
Next, I realized the lack of trigger-warning for an audience about to hear a detailed narrative of the events of last year’s tragedy. Cops may be desensitized to such talk, but their lack of consideration for the unaccustomed civilian is just one more indicator of the disconnect between the I.V. community and its law enforcement. I felt more and more that the ceremony was far too self-serving. I looked at my program and realized the only tribute to the six victims was a collection of grainy photographs on the very back. By this time, I was dreading writing my article.
I resolved to do my job anyway and waited after the event while award recipients took pictures with their families. When the time was right, I approached a group of them. Then came the final straw. When I asked if any of the officials in the group could comment for the Daily Nexus, they looked at each other, clearly communicating annoyance, and dispersed, leaving one unlucky deputy in front of me. He looked over at his colleges like they had abandoned him, then he chuckled. I asked him my first question and he answered so swiftly it was insulting. His disregard for me was obvious and, at that point, I felt troubled not only about the insensitive, uncomfortable ceremony, but about the overall state of student-cop relations.
If I had the chance to talk to the award recipients who so quickly scattered, or if I had felt that the deputy with which I did speak respected me, I would have thanked them for their service to our community and done my best to have a conversation that would have fostered further student-cop communication. That conversation would not have undone the vast amount of tension between students and cops, but it would have been one positive interaction between a cop and a student. In I.V., that is something.
At this point, I would be remiss not to say there are officers and deputies who have consistently been willing to speak with me during my time as a reporter, namely Lt. Rob Plastino from I.V. Foot Patrol and Lt. Mark Signa from UCPD, and I am sure there are others. My interactions with people like Plastino and Signa leave me feeling hopeful about our cops, and in the days following, I defend our cops when a friend says, “Fuck the police.” The influence these communications have on my attitude proves how abstract the relationship is between UCSB students and cops, as it is built on a collection of small interactions between individuals from each. This is why my experience today was so alarming.
My brief, failed interaction with award-winning law enforcement personnel caused me to rethink the ceremony I had been covering. It aided my understanding as to why I felt so uncomfortable during the event and prompted me to forgo my news article and write up this opinion piece.
Many of our local officers really are well-meaning public servants and others are genuine assholes, but that remains virtually irrelevant until fundamental changes occur.
I.V. needs changes that bring students and cops together for an event to solemnly remember a tragedy a community shared by thanking first responders. Students and cops share the burden of making changes that allow for such unity, but today, it was in the cops’ hands to hold a less self-serving event and include their community — or to at least respect a student journalist who wanted a comment from a deputy with an oversized medal of valor around his neck.
Emergency personnel who prioritize the safety of others should not go unthanked, but a ceremony designed to honor such personnel should certainly not be uncomfortable and problematic, especially given that the relationship between police and students is so delicate.