Undercover police officers working with the Isla Vista Foot Patrol have infiltrated throngs of weekend Del Playa crowds to combat increasing occurrences of street fights and violent assaults.
Since March 2003, six Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s deputies on rotating patrol have been walking among party-goers for the primary purpose of preventing cases of assault and battery. By blending in with crowds, IVFP Lt. Tom McKinny said officers are better able to approach situations where an assault is imminent or a fight has already broken out in order to prevent the action or have a greater chance of catching the perpetrators.
McKinny, who organized the undercover program after noticing an upward trend in violent assaults during January and February 2003, said the new tactics are already having “encouraging” results on the total number of calls related to street fights, as well as the number of people arrested.
“The goal of the undercover deputies is to keep an eye on the town, particularly on DP,” McKinny said.
In January 2003, McKinny said there were 45 street fight calls in Isla Vista that month, 13 of which were reported by officers on the scene and five that resulted in arrests. In February 2003, there were 29 total calls, nine of which were reported by officers and six that resulted in arrests.
“Working as a deputy in Isla Vista from 1983 to 1986, many things were similar to today,” McKinny said, “but when I returned [to I.V.] as a lieutenant in September 2002, the main thing I seemed to notice was more violence – and more senseless violence.”
After implementation of the undercover officer program in March 2003, the number of fight calls dropped to 18 for the month, while the number of fights reported by officers increased to 11 and the number of arrests made increased to seven. Street fight statistics for April 2003 were similar to those from March.
McKinny said the undercover officers follow groups of “guys who roam around looking to fight” and radio to uniformed officers where to watch out for a “fight brewing.” Plainclothes officers will not break cover to issue citations for open containers or public intoxication, but they will identify themselves as police officers to step in and break up fights that have already started.
The existence of the undercover officers “might make people think twice about being aggressive with somebody,” McKinny said.
An IVFP officer who chose to be identified as Deputy Jones, who has participated in undercover operations in Isla Vista, said undercover officers may pretend to be regular guys on the street when they see a situation that could potentially lead to a fight. He said officers might physically keep angry parties apart and urge them not to fight because police officers are nearby.
“When you’re undercover, you don’t get the recognition that you would typically,” Jones said. “We take the fly-on-the-wall attitude.”
Jones said he has not yet needed to step into a fight in progress, but fistfights are potentially dangerous for officers.
“You really have to balance the safety of others with your own safety,” Jones said.
Jones said some benefits of the undercover program are immeasurable, like the value of saving police resources by actively preventing crime. Since under cover officers actively prevent fights, they decrease the number of arrests that need to be made, which maximizes the number of officers who can be on the street responding to other calls.
McKinny said undercover officers were pressed into service well before last month’s grand jury report criticized IVFP crowd control procedures and uneven enforcement of local noise and party ordinances.
Although undercover officers have been used for especially large party weekends such as Halloween, McKinny said this is the first time they have been used in Isla Vista on a regular basis. The officers receive overtime pay from Santa Barbara County but will not be on patrol every night because of cost issues.
“It’s expensive,” McKinny said. “It isn’t something we can do year-round.”