For such a small area, Isla Vista has an alarming number of police officers patrolling on any given day. The outside eye may wonder if there had been some kind of threat to the community such that officers can be seen patrolling the town in groups on weekdays and practically blockading streets on weekends. The issue isn’t necessarily that there are so many officers, even though one has to think there might be areas more in need of protection, but that officers here don’t tend to be the friendly faces you’d expect to see as the sentinels of a student community adjacent to one of the most prestigious public universities in the world. More often than not, there’s a pervasive sense of observation without interaction, and police are detached until it’s time for them to make an arrest.
In I.V., the streets are relatively quiet, and if you’re sober enough, your chances of being a target aren’t high enough to deter your independence. As a female, however, more often than not, a huge police vehicle will slow down and the officers inside will look at you almost menacingly and then keep moving. There’s no smile, no nod, no inquiry into your safety, and the gaze of a police officer seems more threatening than a sign of safety. Incidents like this are plenty – upsettingly so. I’ve seen a friend who is over 21 arrested as she walked into her home. The arresting officers had followed us down the street. I’ve been at a quiet party on an out-of-the-way street and had a sheriff walk in without a knock to int
imidate the stunned people there. More importantly, these experiences aren’t unique to me: You can hear stories about police officers in other people’s conversations the next morning after a night out. It seems most of the student community has developed a mistrust of people in uniform that needs to be recognized and addressed before we’re inundated with more grim-faced, armed “protectors.”
Having police officers on every corner doesn’t decrease the number of crimes that occur here. Anyone who wakes up to campus alerts multiple nights out of the week can attest to that. We’re told of armed robberies, arson, sexual assault and even theft from inside the heart of campus. While it’s not to say that police officers
make no difference, I think it is safe to assume that adding more hasn’t been solving – and will not solve – the problem. What it does do is make students feel resentful of police officers. This mistrust is a huge contributor to the large uptick of social unrest we’re seeing across the United States as our police forces become increasingly more militarized.
I believe anyone who makes sweeping statements about all police officers, or all of anything, is more part of the problem than part of the solution; however, realizing there’s a rift between students and police officers and, on a larger scale, citizens and police officers is only part of the healing process of a problem that shows its symptoms everywhere. Isla Vista is a microcosm of relations in the U.S., and has weathered many challenges to its peace. However, it is lucky to be a community that, while it has its own social and racial issues, is founded on learning and is, for the most part, a community of students. Because of this, it lacks the long history of racial tension that intertwines with tension between citizens and police. This puts us in the unique position to repair the relationship between law enforcement and the citizens they’re here to protect.
I did experience a slight moment of confusion upon hearing that the senior class gift was going toward the student safety fund – did this mean more police officers? I nodded in agreement over Chancellor Yang’s email about UCSB’s coming improvements to Isla Vista until I realized the goal was to make it more campus-insular and protected. “Protected.” A large part of leaving home and going to an institution of higher learning, especially one as amazing and rigorous as UCSB, is to realize one’s independence and become more able to function in the real world once the training wheels are off. Granted, with its surreal natural beauty and the disarming beauty of its population, Isla Vista may not be the best example of the real world. But sanitizing its culture and making it more like dorm life, like a police state even, is not the avenue to this realization of independence. If anything, it puts you into the world with a skewed perception of the people who dedicate their lives to keeping us safe.
I wish I could offer some kind of solution, but I think talking about problems like this, in a small, student community and in the larger sense, is where the solution begins. Why not go to one of those lunches officers have so often and ask some of the hard questions? We need to get to the point as a community where we’re not afraid to start the conversation, because that’s the only way to actually fix this problem and build up the trust. Also, I believe it truly is necessary to know your rights and to remember that, despite some degree of fear you may feel, these officers did put on a uniform that implies protection and service. Not all officers are good and not all are bad, but their garb implies that on some level that goes past arrest quotas and tax revenue, they resonate with the need to keep you safe.