The Isla Vista Community Services District is taking over leadership of Isla Vista Safe — a community task force devoted to addressing public safety issues of gun violence, sexual assault, substance and drug use, Deltopia and Halloween weekends and cliff safety within the local community — as of November 2022.
After over 30 years in office, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley officially retired in January and vacated her role as the chair of the I.V. Safe coalition, handing over the reins to the Isla Vista Community Services District (IVCSD).
Dudley spearheaded the formation of I.V. Safe in early 2014 in response to a succession of violent crimes and sexual assaults that afflicted the community. The mass shooting tragedy that followed in May 2014 heightened the urgency of the group’s mission to make I.V. safe.
“At some basketball game, there was an act of violence on the courts. There had been sexual assault and there had a been a burglary,” Dudley said of the series of crime that occurred in 2014. “I became very concerned about the safety of Isla Vista and I decided I wanted to bring together all the people who were involved with Isla Vista being a safe place.”
Dudley brought together members from law enforcement, county agencies, Standing Together to End Sexual Assault, Santa Barbara Response Network, UC Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara City College, among others, to form the coalition.
I.V. Safe operated as an unformalized group without any allocated funding from the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. Representatives from local agencies and entities met on an as-needed basis to engage in discussion about public safety and collaborate on community solutions.
The group initially lacked direct representation for residents of I.V., an issue that was amended with the inclusion of the I.V. Recreation & Park District and, eventually, IVCSD.
With the recent change in leadership, IVCSD discussed the future of the group at its Jan. 24 board meeting, evaluating the efficacy and accomplishments of the group and proposing potential reforms.
IVCSD Director Kirsten Deshler expressed her appreciation of Dudley’s work to build a coalition and prioritize the “very serious issues” I.V. community residents face.
“The creation of I.V. Safe from the district attorney came from a really good place, and it was her desire to look at some very serious issues that were happening in Isla Vista,” Deshler said.
Deshler expressed some concerns about inheriting a group that she deemed unproductive and ineffective at times.
“I didn’t see these meetings as particularly driven by projects, per se. It was more of a social time that people got together and generally talked,” Deshler said. “I felt like our time got very, very, very unwieldy and they were not productive in any way, shape or form.”
Dudley emphasized that before the creation of I.V. Safe, no singular agency had stepped up to lead public safety efforts for the unincorporated area of I.V. According to Dudley, UC Santa Barbara, the county and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office engaged in “finger-pointing” battles to assume responsibility for the college town.
Goleta Union School District Trustee Ethan Bertrand, who attended I.V. Safe meetings from 2015 to 2019, reflected on the instrumental role that the coalition played in compelling local agencies to “take shared responsibility” for improving the community’s public safety.
“The best result of I.V. Safe was that it brought county agencies, educational institutions and other community partners together to collaborate on improving public safety in Isla Vista after the tragedy and other events in 2014,” Bertrand said.
Since the group’s inception, I.V. has seen a major reduction in crimes and a dramatic decrease in activity around Halloween and Deltopia weekends, according to Dudley. I.V. Safe’s 2016 “Report to the People” outlined the group’s work to improve public safety.
Dudley added that cases of sexual assault remain highly prevalent, but that the presence of Standing Together to End Sexual Assault — a Santa Barbara organization uplifting survivors — and an Interpersonal Violence Investigator — a position established by IVCSD in partnership with UCSB Police Department — have offered greater support and resources for survivors than before.
In terms of tangible actions to improve safety, Dudley pointed to increased police presence, increased sexual assault response team presence, rebranding efforts and sanctioned campus-organized events as alternatives to street partying.
Part of the group’s strategy included an advertising campaign, funded by the District Attorney’s Office and law enforcement agencies, to reform I.V.’s public image. In a staff report, IVCSD General Manager Jonathan Abboud described the rebranding effort as an attempt to shy away from the area’s reputation as a “rule-free party town” to an “intellectually stimulating environment.”
IVCSD Director Jay Freeman vocalized his criticisms of I.V. Safe’s advertising campaign to rebrand Isla Vista at the Jan. 24 board meeting.
“I want to make [it] clear — I hated that group. I went to the Board of Supervisors constantly with pushing them on the actions that group was taking,” Freeman said. “The advertisements that they were putting out, whether they were very extremely pro-police or whether they were anti-community member, some of them that were victim-blaming victims of sexual assault, things that were just misogynistic in nature. It was a horrible set of things.”
Dudley recognized past community criticism and deemed the lack of I.V. community input as a misstep in retrospect.
“Some people were offended. They were saying, ‘Why are you rebranding our community? We want more input in that.’ And I think that was right,” Dudley said. “We were appropriately, in my mind, criticized for doing the rebranding without the involvement of the community.”
Bertrand said that the group’s prioritization of law enforcement solutions posed another significant challenge to the group’s ability to serve the interests of I.V. residents to make the community safer.
“The vast majority of safety issues in Isla Vista are related to substance use, mental health issues, poverty [and] gender violence, and many of these issues need to be dealt with through alternative resources that really address the underlying causes of these issues, rather than just using law enforcement as a response,” Bertrand said.
At I.V. Safe meetings, Bertrand said that he and his colleagues consistently advocated for less policing around special event weekends.
“Law enforcement solutions were prioritized over most other public safety options, so at the end of the day, that’s the direction that the agencies went,” he continued. “But it was important for us to provide that feedback, and over the past several years, there have been gradual reductions in the response.”
IVCSD Director Olivia Craig, a second-year environmental studies student at UCSB, said she found value in gathering entities outside of I.V. to the organization. Craig suggested implementing a public forum aspect to potential meetings to increase productivity and ground the meeting with I.V. residents at the center.
“It would be really useful for Isla Vista to bring stakeholders together and especially from the public — if there was a way that we could make a portion of the meeting so that we have public input on public safety issues in Isla Vista,” Craig said at the Jan. 24 meeting. “That will allow for more productive discussions with input from the I.V. community.”
“A lot of the time, some of these institutions that are further away from [I.V.] lose track of who they’re supposed to be representing,” she continued.
During the Jan. 24 meeting, Director Spencer Brandt, formerly a representative to I.V. Safe, suggested that going forward, the group’s membership should include more local entities such as I.V. Youth Projects, St. George Teen Center and Associated Students Public Safety Commission.
Brandt also agreed with Craig’s suggestion to bring a public forum into the proposed meetings for I.V. Safe and emphasized the importance of giving residents a platform to share their concerns.
“You need to provide a mechanism for people to be able to make their voice heard, especially when there are things happening in the community that public safety decision makers need to hear about,” he said. “Our residents are … our ears on what’s going on. [They’re] on the ground in a way that any staff member or service provider from any of these agencies can never get quite right.”
For the future of the I.V. Safe coalition, Bertrand called for a more “holistic” and restorative approach that incorporates community-led policing alternatives and public health resources.
“We need to take a public health approach because so many of these issues are not law enforcement or criminal justice issues,” he said. “Ultimately, by focusing more on prevention and by focusing more on strengthening our community, we will have less issues that we have to respond to.”
A version of this article appeared on p. 4 of the Feb. 2, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.